Should Chris Huhne really be leader?

by Stephen Tall on April 7, 2008

That’s the allegation by the Indy’s political editor, Jane Merrick:

According to one authoritative account of the leadership contest last December, Chris Huhne would be Lib Dem chief were it not for hundreds of ballot papers being held up by the Christmas post. Mr Clegg beat his rival by just 511 votes out of more than 41,000 party members in one of the closest-run races in political history.

Yet as many as 1,300 postal votes arrived after the deadline of 15 December – and an unofficial check of the papers showed that Mr Huhne had enough of a majority among them to hand him victory. The extraordinary claim could spark demands for a rerun from Mr Huhne’s supporters.

I’ve not come across Jane Merrick’s journalism before, so I’ll take it on trust that she does bother to check her sources, even if she doesn’t feel the need to cite them. But I find the story barely plausible.

For sure, the gap between Nick and Chris was a wafer-thin 511. But for the result to have been overturned by ballot papers received after the closing date would mean that Chris would have had to have picked up 70% to Nick’s 30% of the final 1,300 ballot papers. Given how close both candidates were running throughout the contest, this stretches credulity.

Not impossible, then. But highly, highly unlikely. And you might have hoped the Indy would reflect this in its coverage. Hoped, but not expected. For British political journalism is rarely troubled by the need for facts to substantiate a story – just throw together a load of allegations, and see what sticks.