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3 February 2012

Mehdi Hasan asks: Should social democrats mourn the departure of Chris Huhne?

The ex-Energy Secretary isn't exactly the lefty he's made out to be.

By Mehdi Hasan

So Chris Huhne has gone off to defend his innocence in court. Arise Ed Davey!

If the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary is found innocent, will he become a lightning rod for left-wing, anti-coalition dissent on the Lib Dem backbenches? Much is made, for example, of his SDP past.

I was on BBC2’s Daily Politics earlier discussing the fallout from the resignation, and host Andrew Neil made the same point on air that he’d made earlier on Twitter:

Clegg’s nightmare: Huhne found innocent and rises from backbenches to lead social democrat wing of Lib Dems

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It’s a point also made by Benjamin Ramm, editor of the centre-left Liberal magazine:

Chris Huhne should not be underestimated: he remains a key figure in the party. Huhne successfully portrayed himself as an outsider, playing on his SDP background to appeal to the Left of the party – despite being a contributor to the Orange Book – and has made it known that he would have favoured a Lib-Lab coalition.

I’m not sure I buy this. Some points to consider:

1) Huhne, a multimillionaire ex-employee of the ratings agency, Fitch, was a contributor to the notorious Orange Book and is believed to have only adopted a leftist stance to try and justify his “insurgent” campaign for the Lib Dem leadership, up against the “Establishment” and centre-right candidate Nick Clegg, in 2007.

2) Huhne spent a great deal of time in the run-up to the 2010 general election briefing journalists that a deal with the Conservatives – whether confidence-and-supply or full coalition – was not out of the question and something he’d be happy to support.

3) Huhne, as David Cameron acknowledged in his response to the former’s resignation letter this morning, was one of the lead negotiators on the Lib Dem side during the coalition negotiations in May 2010 and, thus, one of the architects of the subsequent, right-wing Con-Dem coalition.

4) One of the Labour negotiators told me once that he was “shocked” at how hostile Huhne had seemed towards a coalition deal with the Labour Party and how he’d walked into the negotiating room calling for Tory-style in-year spending cuts – in direct contradiction to the Lib Dems’ own pre-election position on the timing of austerity measures.

5) In August 2010, it was Huhne who was put up by the Lib Dems alongside Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi in the coalition’s first, joint, party-political press conference. Huhne (falsely) claimed that Labour overspending, rather than a collapse in taxation, had been the cause of the record budget deficit and then nodded along as Warsi bizarrely accused Labour politicians of “illegal” and “criminal” behaviour over their handling of the economy.

6) Huhne voted for every single one of the coalition’s “regressive” cuts to spending on public services, infrastructure and the welfare state over the past 21 months. As Labour peer Helena Kennedy told him on Question Time in June 2010: “You are providing the sheep’s clothing for a very rapacious government that is going to cut spending.” On the same show, Labour’s Peter Hain rightly castigated the then Energy Secretary for trying to draw a (false) comparison between the British and Greek economies: “No serious economic commentator, and you used to be one before you got into government, believes our economy is anything like Greece.”

Then again, having said all of this, I have to also admit that there was no one else in Cabinet who stood up to Cameron and Osborne in the way that Huhne did – over, for example, the negative Tory campaign during the AV referendum and over the Tories’ links withe City – which is why the Cameroons won’t be sad to see the back of him. Plus, given the size of his ego and his ambition, an innocent, revitalised Huhne could just choose to attack the coalition from the backbenches, and from the left, in order to further his own career, regardless of the fact that his recent record suggests he isn’t a lefty. But my own suspicion is that his political career is over.