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The Political Implications of the Huhne Resignation

5th February 2012

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Having been charged with perverting the course of justice, Chris Huhne resigned as Energy and Climate Change Minister in order to focus upon his legal defence. In the resulting mini reshuffle Ed Davey has been promoted to take his place from his post as an Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

This is the first case of a serving minister facing criminal charges in at least the last 100 years, and with Huhne being such a high profile and influential Lib Dem in the coalition his resignation could have widespread political implications.

Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman remarked that ‘the smallest of violins will be playing’ in Number 10 in response to the resignation. Huhne was felt to be a thorn in the side of David Cameron and George Osborne around the cabinet table, causing tensions in the coalition by being quite outspoken. This prime example of this was Huhne’s reported outburst in a cabinet meeting where he slapped No to AV campaign leaflets on the table and directly confronted Osborne and Cameron over what he viewed as underhand tactics in the campaign.

Picture by David Spender

Moreover, the appointment of Ed Davy will be well received by the Conservative leadership, with many feeling that he is almost an 'honorary Cameroon' with views more akin to the Conservatives' and so it is anticipated he will smoothen the operation of the coalition.

However this resignation is terrible news for the Liberal Democrats. Huhne’s resignation marks the second by a Lib Dem minister in 21 months. This is the first time there have been Liberal ministers since Lloyd George was Prime Minister, yet they have already lost 2/5 of the original ministerial appointees, not an encouraging attrition rate.

More importantly for Lib Dems, Huhne was viewed as a strong mouthpiece for them in the cabinet; the very reason he irritated the Conservatives. With his resignation the Lib Dems have lost their key differentiator, the person who could make the Lib Dems seem distinct from the Conservatives. This is of paramount importance to them and is the tactic they are focusing on. This is especially pertinent following their disastrous results in last year’s local elections where they seemed to take all the blame for coalition policies, with voters unable to pinpoint Lib Dem contributions to policy, leaving the Conservatives relatively unscathed.

The Environment portfolio is also very important to the Lib Dems, it being a passionate cause for most of them. It is all the more important considering how much the Lib Dems have given up for the coalition; environment is the one remaining area where they feel they can make a difference. And the consensus is that Huhne did make this difference and was a very successful minister.  He ensured that the UK pledged to half carbon emissions by 2025, resisting pressure from the Treasury to weaken focus on the environment for the sake economic efficiency.

Thus the worry is that Ed Davy will not be such a staunch protector of the Lib Dem’s green passions and will give into Osborne’s pressure. However Ed Davy could be a very effective minister, coming from the Department of Business, Innovation of Skills could help the Environment ministry have better links with the rest of Whitehall; as the Director of the Green Alliance states, 'Ed Davey has the opportunity to build a broader alliance across government'.

Nick Clegg might be secretly happy that Huhne is out of the picture. Huhne is, and has been for some time, his biggest rival in the party. Clegg narrowly defeated him in the last Lib Dem leadership election, which was bitterly fought. During the campaign Huhne’s office prepared a document entitled ‘Calamity Clegg’, which sums up their relationship. Huhne’s departure strengthens the Clegg wing of the party, leaving no real rival for the leadership.

All this would change should Huhne return having been found innocent. He could be a figure on the backbenches for the more left wing Lib Dems, disgruntled at the coalition, to rally around as a new power base in the party. Huhne is certainly very ambitious, and with the tight result of the last leadership election we cannot rule out that he still holds leadership ambitions.

But most importantly all involved must draw a line under this as quickly as possible for two reasons. Firstly so that Chris Huhne is given a fair trial without there being speculation on his guilt or innocence, which is for a jury to decide. And secondly this issue is of peripheral importance when considering the problems with the economy which are still gripping the country, all the more worrying with the think tank NIESR warning that the UK is heading for another recession. The media and the government should not be distracted from the real issues by Huhne’s resignation.

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