Hats off to the Spectator‘s James Forsyth for getting there first, and for that extra bit of colour: the George Osborne-attributed putdown of Chris Huhne and his “sub-Jeremy Paxman interview” style.
Now, thanks to a panel in today’s Times (£), we have, in full, the alleged cabinet exchange between Huhne, Cameron and Osborne:
Chris Huhne [placing No campaign leaflets on the cabinet table] to David Cameron: Will you disassociate yourself from these leaflets? Will you sack any Tory official who produced them?
David Cameron: I’m not responsible for the No campaign, I can only talk for the Conservative No campaign
CH, turning to George Osborne: Will you disassociate yourself from them?
George Osborne: This was always going to be the most difficult time for the coalition
CH: But will you disassociate yourself from the way these leaflets attack Nick Clegg?
GO: This is cabinet, not some sub-Jeremy Paxman interview. This is not an appropriate subject for cabinet
CH: People will draw their own conclusions about your failure to distance yourself from these attacks on the Deputy Prime Minister.
For the Thunderer, “The discipline that has held the coalition together for a year was in tatters last night,” while the Guardian talks of “extraordinary scenes in cabinet” and the Daily Telegraph elects to use that tabloid favourite, describing the events as a “bust-up”.
Predictably, perhaps, Huhne has replaced Vince Cable as the most likely to exit the cabinet next – his price fell from 5/1 to 4/1 overnight on Smarkets. But, like Cable before him, Huhne will need to consider what influence he can hope to have from the back benches and may conclude that he is better off fighting from within. For now.
I suggested at the weekend that Huhne’s attack on Margaret Thatcher in the pages of the Observer were part of a long game for the Energy Secretary, following his willingness to duel with both Sayeeda Warsi and Osborne over the tenor of the AV campaign. But the latest outburst, now that it is in the public domain, is high-risk, especially if the government can portray him as “semi-detached” and a serial troublemaker.
It’s worth noting that Osborne’s people – it seems – were quite happy for the exchange to get out. And, as Forsyth notes, Osborne “didn’t try and defuse the conversation with a joke or anything like that”.