Where did it all go wrong? A former journalist, banker and MEP, who only entered the House of Commons in May 2005, within months of his election he was challenging for the Lib Dem leadership on a radical green platform, married with a commitment to economic competence and devolving power to local communities. Unfailingly ambitious, and utterly convinced of his own ability, Chris Huhne emerged as the “dark horse” of the first of two Lib Dem leadership contests in the last parliament. So successful was he that he placed second in that contest, behind party grandee Sir Menzies Campbell. It is alleged he reneged on a deal with the victor, in the first sign of his ability to say one thing and do quite the opposite. However, never one to let failure dent his aspiration, he tried again, in 2007, and was bested by Nick Clegg by the most slender of margins. Upon the formation of the Coalition he joined the Cabinet and his accession, for now, was complete.
Now the furthest Huhne’s lustful eyes can gaze is beyond the walls of whatever institution he may be frequenting at the pleasure of Her Majesty Prison’s Service. Reams of paper will be sacrificed between now and polling as the commentariat read the runes and attempt, mystically, to predict the outcome of admittedly the most noteworthy by-election amongst the many this parliament has had. One thing is clear though, Huhne’s demise presents Labour with a glorious opportunity for political mischief.
Vengeful Tories will have already booked their train tickets down to the south coast to extract their pound of flesh from their supposed colleagues, whom they clearly can no longer abide. The perennial opportunist Nigel Farage will roll his UKIP caravan, supported by swathes of a disillusioned right wing press, into town. And Lib Dem activists, and their high command, will nervously eye a contest which would in previous guises have been almost too easy to win.
The stakes are far higher for the three parties mentioned above than the official Opposition. David Cameron is under tremendous pressure from a parliamentary party seething with resentment, disappointment and, ever dangerous with the Conservative party, impatience with their leader. Cameron needs to win and be seen to be winning. The argument will go that if he cannot win in a southern marginal, against a party of near-toxic popularity nationally, then all dreams of a majority in 2015 are precisely that. The Lib Dems too desperately need to hold on to a seat that is, at local level at any rate, a one party state. Displaying the ‘pavement politics’ for which they are famed, the local party actually increased its majority on the local Council last May. If they lose the parliamentary seat,– and lose badly – it will be a foretaste of the annihilation that awaits come 2015.
In the shadow should be Ed Miliband’s Labour party. Frankly, let the Coalition parties knock seven shades out of each other. Political parties are well adept at doing this when the time suits, as the Conservatives did in Oldham and Saddleworth, and – when attempting to conjure a similar example – the Labour party did in the Bromley and Chislehurst 2006 by-election, with one Rachel Reeves as the candidate. With the party enjoying, if that is the right word, a base of just 10% at the last election, a surge of unfathomable proportions would be need to be unleashed in this Hampshire town.
Allowing the two Coalition parties, with the added venom of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, to engage in hand-to-hand combat in a southern marginal may well suit the Labour party just fine. Tempers that are currently simmering will boil over between the Coalition partners, and one of their party leaders’ must lose – and as a consequence take a heavy blow. Labour, simply, cannot lose from this situation.
Of course, abandonment is not the strategy. It is One Nation, just not in Eastleigh. But the biggest winner from stoking Coalition woes will be Labour, and as Chris Huhne hits rock bottom, Labour will at last have something to thank him for.