7 years on: 2 ‘myths’ about the Clegg-Huhne leadership race that persist

by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2014

skating_13xii07 005It’s 7 years to the day since Nick Clegg was formally elected leader of the Lib Dems. Over at the Telegraph, professional Labour contrarian Dan Hodges has penned what I’d call a fair-minded piece (Clegg’s critics would call it a generous whitewash) which concludes:

Nick Clegg has become the pantomime villain of British politics. A cipher for our discontent about politics, and the modern political class. But let’s step back and look for a moment at the New World Clegg has had a hand in shaping through his own eyes. He has lead his party into government. He has proved that coalition government can be stable. He has neutralised the more extreme instincts of his coalition partners. He has helped guide his country to a place of relative social and economic safety.

Dan Hodges’ article also includes two persistent ‘myths’ — the inverted commas are deliberate, by the way: as you’ll shortly see it’s impossible to know whether they’re totally erroneous or just unknowable hypotheticals.

‘Myth’ 1: Chris Huhne would have won the leadership vote if late ballots had been counted

Dan writes: ‘Nick Clegg won the leadership from his rival and friend, Chris Huhne, by just 511 votes. 1,300 postal ballots were delayed by the Christmas post, and, according to reports, would have been enough to give Huhne victory.’

The source for this is an April 2008 report by the Independent’s Jane Merrick which noted: ‘an unofficial check of the papers showed that Mr Huhne had enough of a majority among them to hand him victory.’

Less often quoted is the explicit denial that this unofficial count could have happened: ‘The Electoral Commission [sic*] absolutely firmly have said that none of the late votes were ever counted by anybody. There wasn’t an official go-through of late ballot papers. Late ballot papers were discarded, because they were late and therefore void,’ pointed out ‘a spokeswoman for Mr Clegg’. To which you might invoke Mandy Rice-Davies, “Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?”

Perhaps. But the maths are also tricky. To have overturned Clegg’s 511 vote majority, Chris Huhne would have needed to pick up 871 (67%) of those final 1,300 votes and Clegg just 359 (33%). Not impossible, no — it’s why the ‘myth’ remains in inverted commas — but extremely unlikely. Even less likely is that an unofficial count would have been able to predict so confidently and with such exactness what these never-counted ballots actually said.

Might the rumour have been passed onto a journalist as a bit of mischief-making by Friends of Chris Huhne (perhaps even the same friends who accidently sent out the notorious ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing during the campaign)? You might very well think that…

For the record, by the way, I voted for Chris — that’s my ballot paper in the photo — even did a bit of phone canvassing for him. But I don’t believe he would have won if those late votes had been counted.

(* I assume this should have read Electoral Reform Services, which ran the ballot, but don’t know if the error was the spokeswoman’s or the journalist’s.)

‘Myth’ 2: If Chris Huhne had been elected Lib Dem leader, and become Deputy Prime Minister in May 2010, then his later arrest and conviction would’ve sunk the Lib Dems.

Dan writes: ‘Had those ballot papers been delivered in time, Huhne would have been Deputy Prime Minister when Vicky Pryce wreaked her terrible vengeance. It’s interesting to speculate what implication his arrest and subsequent conviction would have had on the Lib Dems, the coalition and the course of British political history.’

There’s a lot of hypothetical here, so I’ll be brief with my own. Chris Huhne’s an ambitious man. Had he become Lib Dem leader, even more had he become Deputy Prime Minister, I very much doubt he’d have put all that in jeopardy by leaving his wife. And had he not done so, his historic speeding points lie would almost certainly have remained just that: historic.