4 Feb 2013

Huhne, Clegg and the by-election

Criminal convictions and Liberal politics must spell appalling trouble for the leadership mustn’t they? Maybe, maybe not.

The by-election now triggered in Eastleigh in some ways might hold greater fears for David Cameron than it does for Nick Clegg. Lib Dem strength in Eastleigh is not to be underestimated – the local council is almost a one-party state – see the balance of power here which shows 40 Lib Dem councillors to four Conservatives. I believe two of those Tory councillors are now outside the parliamentary seat as well. If the party selected a prominent local councillor it would surely try to capitalise on what seems to be a popular local council and make it a very (exclusively?) local campaign.

For David Cameron, disgruntled backbenchers will use any ammunition to throw at him and failure to take a seat off the Lib Dems when their national poll rating is flat on the ground will be exploited. David Cameron’s Tory critics will say it is additional evidence that their leader isn’t much of a winner.

For Nick Clegg, a potential headache has disappeared. Chris Huhne in recent weeks had told friends he hoped to resume his frontbench political career if his legal troubles went away.

He’d even told some that he would only accept a cabinet job, nothing below that. Nick Clegg had felt obliged to acknowledge that he had promised Chris Huhne he’d be welcomed back to a big role if his points problem went away. Allies of Nick Clegg acknowledged that he would have to be accommodated and “you couldn’t have him on the backbenches for long” – implying he would make trouble. (Nick Clegg reported his rival leadership campaign to the Lib Dem authorities in the 2007 leadership contest for “smearing”).

Even if the point issue had gone away it was hard to see how Chris Huhne would manage to mount a leadership challenge against Nick Clegg (it would’ve been his third tilt at the job) but his presence, his confidence, his sharp tongue and readiness to deploy it would’ve been a smouldering presence on the backbenches for as long as he sat there and I suspect there will be some around Nick Clegg who have distinctly divided thoughts at today’s news.

Chris Huhne phoned Nick Clegg last night to tell him he’d decided to change his plea and resign his seat. Nick Clegg is said to have been “saddened” and “shocked.”

Just to complicate matters, UKIP leader Nigel Farage is telling folk he’s “mulling over” whether to stand at Eastleigh.

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