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

Getty Images.
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.