Why I voted for Chris Huhne (and in praise of The Two Iains)

by Stephen Tall on February 4, 2013

skating_13xii07 005Here’s my 2007 Lib Dem leadership election ballot paper: Chris Huhne got my first preference. (Okay, with only two candidates there wasn’t really a need to mark the figure ’1′: I’m just a die-hard preferential voter.)

I slightly surprised myself with my vote. Nick Clegg should have been more my cup of ideological tea. Though both he and Chris were ‘Orange Bookers’, it was Nick who was more closely associated with the social-justice-through-market-liberalism which is my philosophical bent and I started off assuming I’d vote for him.

What changed my mind? Well, Nick spent the whole leadership campaign pulling his punches; Chris spent much of the campaign throwing them.

And that, I thought, was the kind of leader the party needed to experience: a robust, take-no-prisoners, bit-of-a-bastard who’d be able to handle the rough-and-tumble of the election campaign to come and wouldn’t quail in front of Paxo. The party was, at the time, jittery about its electoral prospects, facing a pincer movement from Cameron and Brown — both of whom were then trying to pitch their tents on the liberal lawn — and Chris I thought was the most battle-toughened leader on offer. Those qualities, for me, trumped the issue of whether or not I’d always agree with him. So though I stayed officially neutral, my vote went to Chris and I was even persuaded to do a bit of under-cover phone campaigning for him.

Do I regret my decision now? Probably. Chris showed a tragic character flaw in his decision to lie and cover-up a criminal offence. (Though there but for the grave of God etc.) But then I’m not sure I’m the best picker of future party leaders. My track record as a party member to date reads: Blair (1994), Rendel (1999), Campbell (2006) and Huhne (2007). Next time there’s a vacancy, I’d strongly urge Lib Dem members to ignore my recommendation and do the complete opposite.*

On the plus side, Chris’s downfall has brought out the generous best in a couple of right-wingers with whom I often disagree.

First, the Telegraph’s Iain Martin:

I am not a practising Christian. But even though I was raised in the Church of Scotland, where God is very much an optional extra, I can recognise the value of Christian forgiveness. As our country becomes steadily more secular, the liberal hope is that it becomes, in some vague way, kinder and more understanding of weakness and difference. The very opposite seems to be the case. … More broadly, shoutiness of various sorts seems to be mandatory. There, I’ve said it. I feel sorry for Chris Huhne. Go on, shout at me.

And Iain Dale (who it’s great to see back blogging, by the way):

… he was a major talent, a good minister and one of their keenest brains. No doubt he will become persona non grata but his talent will not be easy to replace. Andrew Mitchell once told me that Huhne took to government like a duck to water. If he promised something to a fellow Minister he delivered on it. You could count on his support in Cabinet. … Chris Huhne is easy meat today, but before he is fed to the wolves, think about his state of mind. People sometimes do desperate things in these circumstances.

John Major once said that society should learn to understand a little less and condemn a little more. He got it completely the wrong way round. Kudos to the two Iains for putting their humanity on display.

* Please note, I reserve the right to attempt reverse psychology.

One comment

(Being a party member at the time,) I voted for Nick, but with a heavy heart because, as you say, he seemed to be in ultra-defensive mode throughout the campaign and almost hoping to reverse into the leadership.

In fact I remember challenging him about this after one of the hustings and was surprised at his frank admission (since he didn’t know me from Adam) that he was indeed being ‘painted into a corner’ on public service reform. I didn’t know whether to be reassured or dismayed when he told me that he felt he’d left just enough ‘wiggle room’ to be radical as leader once the contest was out of the way…

I was put off Huhne partly by his policy stances, some of which I felt were synthetic – having read many of the regular articles he used to churn out as an MEP, I was pretty convinced he was tilting left for the activist vote.

But more than that it was the conduct of his campaign that disturbed me. All right, I know politics is a rough old trade, and there was a case to be made for a leader with sharp elbows, but he went over the line for me. It oh-so-nearly worked, mind… and certainly had the effect of boxing Clegg into a corner on policy during the campaign.

After that bruising experience, I expected more trouble with Huhne going ‘on manoeuvres’ to undermine Clegg’s leadership – but he proved me wrong by his subsequent loyalty. But when Huhne laid into the ‘dirty tricks’ of the anti-AV campaign, I did feel it was a case of pots and kettles…

Anyway, whatever my differences with him on policy (especially on the euro, where I found him almost fanatical), I did always regard him as one of the cleverest people in the Lib Dems, indeed in frontline politics. Sometimes too clever-clever for his own good (in a way David Laws captures teasingly in his book about the coalition negotiations), but undoubtedly very bright and erudite.

Perhaps it was hubris that proved his downfall. At any rate, as you say, a tragic character flaw. He has plainly behaved pretty shabbily, not so much in the original offence but the lies and the cover-up.

But I have no great desire to throw him to the wolves. We can safely leave that to great moral pillars of our society in the tabloid media…

by Alex Sabine on February 4, 2013 at 9:20 pm. Reply #

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