There is a thread of glee running through some of the commentary around Chris Huhne’s fate this morning. This is because the former Energy Secretary has rubbed a lot of people in Westminster up the wrong way. Many Tories see him as insufficiently collegiate when it comes to collective cabinet responsibility for the coalition project. He is suspected of keeping too beady an eye on that corner of the Lib Dem grass roots where visceral loathing of the Conservatives lurks.
Nor has it ever been forgotten in Nick Clegg’s office that Huhne was once his rival for the party leadership.The departure creates a vacancy for the promotion of more malleable Cleggites – or at least people with whom the Tories are more comfortable doing business. (Step forward “Orange Book” liberal Edward Davey.)
But there really is no upside to this episode for the Lib Dems. Away from the microscopic detail of Westminster personality politics, this is just a story of a minister crashing out of cabinet with a sleazy cloud over his head. And the minister is a Liberal Democrat. The party is having a hard enough time being known for anything other than its famous tuition fees u-turn. The brand, at the moment, is apparently associated in voters’ minds with nothing at all or the intrinsic worthlessness of political promises. To then appear in headlines because a leading figure in the team faces criminal charges is not a good look for the party, whichever way you configure it.
Besides, for all that there was no love lost between Huhne and Clegg, it has sometimes been useful having a voice in the cabinet who is not altogether “coalicious”, as they say. The kind of scratchy,abrasive dissent that never fully erupts into opposition – Huhne’s speciality – operates as a safety valve for the purposes of party unity, reassuring ordinary members and MPs that their leaders haven’t been entirely captured by the Tories.