3 Feb 2012

Chris Huhne – the Lib Dem with sharp elbows

As the dust settles after Chris Huhne’s resignation from the cabinet to face criminal charges, Channel 4 News finds out about the man behind the often inscrutable image.

It could be said that the former secretary of state for energy and climate change has a rather chilly public persona – but despite something of a “grey man” image, Chris Huhne has a warm, devoted fanbase according to Stephen Tall, the editor of the Lib Dem activists’ newspaper, Lib Dem Voice.

Mr Huhne comes from a well-heeled background, and attended Westminster School followed by Magdalen College Oxford (where he achieved a first in the politician’s degree of politics, philosophy and economics), becoming a Labour activist. However, he has twice failed to win the backing of his party as their leader. The second time he only narrowly lost out to Nick Clegg – now deputy prime minister.

Stephen Tall told Channel 4 News he thinks Huhne’s subsequent behaviour shows significant strength of character.

“After the leadership battle, he could have gone away and sulked but he didn’t, he backed Nick Clegg all the way and helped prep Nick for the TV debates. He was also one of four Lib Dems involved in the coalition negotiations,” he said.

And Mr Huhne remained a key player in the coalition despite occasional and vocal disagreements with the Tories.

He showed hawkish tendencies towards cutting the deficit, opposing plans to scrap the 50p tax rate and arguing that those earning over £150,000 would “get extra income without any work”. He said that the move was “just a way of helping the Conservatives’ friends in the City to put their feet up”.

The resulting rift in the cabinet demonstrated Mr Huhne’s ability to stand up to his cabinet colleagues, a critical quality it is thought his successor Ed Davey may lack.

Sharp elbows

In what appears to be a bit of an understatement, Mr Tall said Huhne tends to divide opinion, largely due to qualities which may or may not be considered noble, depending on whether or not you are on the receiving end of them.

“He has a significant fanbase and when he stood as leader, he stood on a fairly radical policy ticket, taking that role to some extent from Simon Hughes.

“He’s the sort of person who has ‘sharp elbows’, which is unusual in the Lib Dems – he’s not afraid to stand up and say what he thinks, which I think is rather a candid way of doing things in contrast with briefing against people behind their backs,” he said.

Despite this, he was caught out towards the end of 2011 with a tweet that appeared to be meant for private consumption: “From someone else fine, but I do not want my fingerprints on the story. C”. It was deleted ten minutes after appearing on the site.

Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon looks at the political fallout of Chris Huhne’s resignation within government ranks.

Mr Huhne’s CV, which includes periods in business journalism and economics, has seen him undertake among other things a stint as an undercover reporter in India during the state of emergency imposed by Mrs Gandhi and time spent as vice-chairman at the ratings agency, Fitch.

But having achieved all of this, it would seem millionaire Mr Huhne then wanted to fly higher and make a different impact by going into mainstream politics. As Stephen Tall told Channel 4 News: “He’s a serious politician. He’s made his money, he’s secure, he’s in politics for the things he wanted to achieve.”


Despite his ambition, Huhne’s personal energy has never quite transferred into open support among his parliamentary colleagues, though Stephen Tall said he is popular among party activists.

Mr Tall told Channel 4 News: “He’s never been able to electrify the Lib Dem conference and Chris can’t do jokes or the ‘light and shade’ like Nick Clegg can. He’s not afraid to take prisoners – he’ll say it as he sees it, which has made him some enemies.”

As for what the MP for Eastleigh may do in future, Stephen Tall said he could face yet more battles, something he believes Mr Huhne is likely to relish.

“I think he’ll want to continue being active through journalism and interventions on those issues he cares about – the economy and environment in particular.

“He also faces boundary changes in his Eastleigh constituency, so will want and need to spend some time nursing his seat if he wants to remain in frontline politics, especially after the dark cloud that’s been hovering over him the last few months.”