24 Jan 2011

The Nearly Men of British politics

Chris Huhne, Ed Balls and David Davis are all Nearly Men writes Gaby Hinsliff. But who is the one to watch after a week when all three have been in the headlines?

Chris Huhne, Ed Balls and David Davis (Reuters)

QUESTION: What do David Davis, Chris Huhne and Ed Balls have in common?

The answer, of course, is they’re all Nearly Men: all ran for the leadership of their respective parties, each losing to the current incumbent. The next question, after this weekend, is which of them still believes they should have won.

Davis fired a broadside into his old rival yesterday by claiming David Cameron’s inner circle is out of touch with ordinary working people.

It hurt not just because his comments ostensibly on the departure of Andy Coulson (the government’s chief envoy to White Van Man) kept the spin doctor on the front pages, but because the idea of the Cameroons being privileged and remote is a godsend for the opposition. (As was Davis’s recent opposition to granting prisoners the vote, a legal concession David Cameron is embarrassed by having to make.)

His more cynical colleagues have long suspected Davis quit the frontbench to position himself as a future leader. That might be pushing it, but is he at least now volunteering to lead a rightwing revolt?

Chris Huhne, meanwhile, yesterday put some clear yellow water between himself and Coulson, encouraging a police inquiry into phone hacking (surely the last thing Downing Street wants) and contradicting Nick Clegg’s suggestion that the Lib Dems might help choose Coulson’s successor. Rather milder than Davis, but it showed a sure feel for the party’s pulse.

Could Huhne have spotted a vacancy for a senior Lib Dem more sceptical about coalition than his beleaguered leader?

And Ed Balls has gamely buried his economic differences with Ed Miliband over reducing the deficit but a lingering political difference remains over whether Labour stays in ‘listening’ mode (eating humble pie for past errors) or moves to ‘shouting’ mode (attacking Tories, Balls’s forte).

It was Balls who dominated last week’s headlines and Davis who will dominate today’s.

But it’s worth remembering that both men were well beaten in their respective leadership contests, which neuters any ambitions somewhat: Davis’s colleagues may also regard him as too wayward and attention-seeking to lead a credible uprising. The rebellious right needs a ringleader whose loyalty is above reproach.

Huhne, on the other hand, lost by only a whisker to Clegg. Time to watch the ‘nearliest’ of the Nearly Men?

Gaby Hinsliff is a former Political Editor of The Observer newspaper