The Lib Dems moved on from Huhne a long time ago

Party activists are tired of being told that there is such a paucity of Lib Dem talent that the former Energy Secretary leaves a vacuum behind him.

Twelve months and two days ago I was sitting in the broom cupboard the BBC uses in Millbank for its less than stellar guests, waiting to pronounce on what would happen to Chris Huhne should the DPP decide to prosecute, when the news came through that the case was indeed proceeding to court.

"Oh brilliant," said the BBC researcher who was with me. And then remembering that I may not think this was the absolutely best news I’d ever heard added "oh, sorry".

And of course, this whole 368 day merry-go-round has been the gift that kept on giving for the media, with the recurring theme that it’s an absolute nightmare for the Lib Dems.

It’s really not.  It’s an absolute nightmare for Chris Huhne, I grant you, and I imagine only the hardest heart can read those texts between him and his son and not feel some sympathy for him. And for a party already struggling with a few trust issues, finding out  that one of your former leading lights has been economical with the actualité over and over again is not ideal.

But most in the party, while sorry to see a man of Huhne’s undoubted skills brought down in an ultimately needless way, moved on a while back. We get a little tired of being told there is such a paucity of Lib Dem talent that Chris's departure leaves a vacuum behind him. Ed Davey has moved seamlessly into the Energy Secretary’s seat, culminating in last month’s launch of the Green Deal.

And let’s not forget, if it wasn’t for the Christmas post in 2007, we’d be looking for a new leader right now, not just a new member for Eastleigh. In some ways we’ve had a lucky escape.

For us now, the coming by-election is an opportunity as much as a threat. A test of just how the general election is likely to play out in 2015. Here we are, mid-term in government, opinions polls at an absolute nadir – yet we’re the bookies' favourite to retain the seat. Would we really want to be fighting Eastleigh right now if we had a choice? No. But the party goes into the by-election enthusiastically and optimistically.

I’m sure journalists and media researchers were jubilant that the Huhne story took yet another unexpected twist yesterday morning. But for many in the party, we’d mentally navigated that particular bump in the road a while ago.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne prepares to address journalists at Southwark Crown Court after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.