3 May 2011

Is Chris Huhne gearing up for a leadership challenge?

Has there ever been anything quite like it? One Cabinet minister has a go at the PM and the Chancellor in Cabinet?

Probably, yes (the Callaghan government in the 1970s?). But it’s nearly unheard of for this sort of thing to emerge almost in real time (Westland and the Heseltine resignation is the exception that first comes to mind).

Chris Huhne’s pop at both the PM and the Chancellor in Cabinet is being seen by senior Lib Dem colleagues as positioning for the party leadership. The only thing that divides Lib Dems is whether this is a short-term or medium-term strategy.
Chris Huhne didn’t wait for “any other business” at the end of Cabinet to make his strike. He asked the PM and the Chancellor if they were prepared to defend the No campaign attacks on the Yes campaign during the first section of Cabinet when, by tradition, the coming business in the Parliament is being discussed.

George Osborne told him this was not the appropriate place for that kind of conversation. Nobody piled in behind Chris Huhne, the matter didn’t go any further.

I’ve failed so far to find any anecdotes of “eye-rolling” by Lib Dem colleagues but will keep my ear out for that. One Cabinet Tory said it was “all very silly” but the danger for Nick Clegg is that this is not silly at all. 
Some Lib Dems are convinced that Chris Huhne is thinking of an early strike against Nick Clegg, the man who narrowly defeated him for the leadership in 2007 (by 500 votes out of some 40,000 cast). Their rationale is that Huhne will be worried that he’ll be too tainted by association with the Coalition to leave it another year or so.

The added worry being for CH is that a backbencher – most eyes for now on Tim Farron, elected party president – would be more established by then. Other Lib Dems argue that Chris Huhne will not want to be separated from his Cabinet job prematurely and will play a longer game, hoping that “stunts” (their word not mine) like today’s keep Chris Huhne above Tim Farron in the activists’ darling stakes.
What does the “Yes to AV” campaign think of all this? You get a flavour of their views from this campaign source: “Nothing Chris Huhne has done in this campaign has been either authorised by or useful to the Yes Campaign!”

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