Comment: Huhne could still be the Lib Dems’ next leader

Chris Huhne has suffered a setback – but could this merely be the latest step in an improbable path to the Liberal Democrat leadership?

By Alex Stevenson

Think about it. It's dawn on May 8th, 2015. Nick Clegg emerges from the steps of the party headquarters in Great George Street to a flurry of snapping cameras. Faced with a drop in his party's support to the high teens, and an overall collapse in the number of MPs to around 30, he has no choice but to resign. Five years in power isn't bad going for a Lib Dem leader, after all. Now the party has to find its successor. Who are the likely candidates?

It's not unreasonable, in this scenario, to include Chris Huhne among them. There are a number of caveats to this suggestion – but their cumulative effect doesn't mean this unlikely prospect should be instantly ruled out.

The personal embarrassment surrounding the speeding points case is undeniably damaging. But by 2015 a couple of years will have passed since its resolution. And in any case, of all the mainstream parties it is the Lib Dems' grassroots who will be most inclined to forgive and forget. There is a moral stigma to betraying your wife – but it will probably not be sufficient for him to be a write-off come 2015.

Instead Liberal Democrats are more likely to remember about him is his record in government. Not as energy and climate change secretary – Huhne has not achieved much beyond establishing himself as a competent, if gaffe-prone, secretary of state – but as a coalition bruiser.

No member of the junior party has stood up for his party more in Cabinet than Chris Huhne. Who was it who took David Cameron and the Tories to task in the wake of the acrimonious AV referendum? The energy and climate change secretary, that's who. Huhne's record of bullish coalition relations stands in stark contrast with Nick Clegg's own reputation of damaging acquiescence.

This will not be forgotten. If the Lib Dems find themselves in a position to enter into another coalition after the next general election, they will be looking for a man less likely to bow down to the wishes of the senior party. Huhne could that man.

He must play his cards right between now and then. The biggest obstacle is obvious: if he is found guilty of perverting the course of justice his political career will be over for good, and a way must be found of expunging this article completely from the annals of the internet. But if Huhne escapes a criminal conviction, he will have ample opportunities to improve his future chances in a post-Clegg Lib Dem party.

A return to power, which the deputy PM made clear is a possibility, would have to be treated carefully. Huhne must not let himself be contaminated by the 'ConDem' brand, but could resume his Cabinet career if he did so on his own terms. There would be nothing worse than spending the year before the next election in a government department, doing just enough to be associated once more with the coalition.

It may be better, therefore, for Huhne to position himself more skilfully from the backbenches, playing the kind of game which David Miliband has proved so unsubtle at. The scope for meddling with the dark arts of politics is much greater without the burden of ministerial responsibility. His Westminster presence might be muted, true, but this could open up time for him to build a power base within the party.

Yes, Huhne could come back, even after what has happened today. Put it like this: if the Liberal Democrats suffer an electoral drubbing in 2015, a politician with the ability to recover from tremendous setbacks could just be exactly what they're looking for.

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