By Thom Hollick
Last Friday, the third significant cabinet reshuffle of the coalition government was triggered, when Energy and Climate Change secretary, Chris Huhne, resigned because of criminal allegations. The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, announced that Mr Huhne would be tried for perverting the course of justice, in a case that first surfaced last year, when it was alleged that he tried to get another person to take penalty points for him after being caught speeding. The supposed incident occurred in 2003, before he was even elected as an MP, but if proven, Mr Huhne could face jail, something almost unheard of for cabinet ministers.
He will be joined in court by his estranged ex-wife, the economist, Vicky Pryce, who made the original allegations, later revising them to say that she was the person Huhne had pressured into taking his points. It is possible she came forward with these allegations out of revenge; the couple had split up in 2010, when the media uncovered that Huhne was having an affair with his secretary. Pryce will also be charged with a perversion of the course of justice, so it very much looks like the court case will be his word against hers.
This has been rattling around in the background of Huhne’s political career for a while now, with many questioning his ability to perform as a minister whilst be simultaneously being distracted in this way. Of course legally he is to be considered innocent until proven guilty, but unfortunately that is not how it works in politics, and many of his opponents have seized this opportunity to stick the knife in. Now the DPP has forced the issue to come to a head, he has of course resigned to concentrate on fighting the case in which he insists he is innocent, but fellow politicians and commentators alike have been left wondering how this development will affect the dynamics of government.
The first and most obvious outcome is that the cabinet has had to have a reshuffle. Chris Huhne will be replaced by Ed Davey, another Lib Dem formerly working as minister in Vince Cable’s Business department. Davey is in turn to be replaced by Norman Lamb, whose old post as assistant government whip will be taken up by our very own Jenny Willott: MP for Cardiff Central. This leaves the overall balance of power within the coalition unchanged, with neither a net loss nor gain for the Lib Dems.
That does not mean that the present dynamics within the cabinet will remain however, Chris Huhne was undoubtedly a major figure within the party, next to only Nick Clegg and perhaps Vince Cable in political seniority. Having twice run unsuccessfully for the party leadership, Huhne exuded a confidence that suggested he was destined for a leading role of some sort, and was not worried about ruffling feathers if need be. (It has been suggested that this is down to his pre-political career in business in which he made his millions, perhaps allowing him to take risks and act without fear of demotion.) He has publicly clashed with senior Conservatives over issues such as Europe and last year’s AV referendum campaign, including particularly vitriolic attacks upon George Osborne, Baroness Warsi and David Cameron himself.
It is so far unclear whether or not Ed Davey will fill these big shoes and continue pushing to maintain what little ideological space there is between the two coalition partners, but thus far he has had a successful, albeit unremarkable political career. He lists his interests as taxation and economics, as well as the environment, and has pledged to carry on his predecessors work in creating the so-called ‘green economy’, as well as fighting rising energy bills.
From this we can probably predict that there won’t be too much of a policy departure, the real question is how well he will be able to make the case for investing in green technology in the face of austerity demands made by Osborne and the treasury. Even Chris Huhne found it difficult to convince colleagues that his department was one that needed protecting from the worst budget cuts.
Beyond the sphere of policy, it is worth commenting on the nature of the reshuffle, and that is, that one white, male, 57-year-old PPE graduate from Oxford has been replaced by another white, male, 46-year-old PPE graduate from Oxford (although as far as we are aware this one isn’t a multimillionaire). One can’t help but think this might have been an opportunity to at least promote another woman into the cabinet, just as Cameron did by promoting Justine Greening following Liam Fox’s resignation last year. Of course Clegg’s decision will be vindicated should Davey have a fantastic and uncontroversial ministerial career, but in the meantime the present cabinet is one of the most unrepresentative of the wider population ever, with just 5 out of 30 members being women.
In recent months, there has been something of an acceptance by the Lib Dems, that if they are going to reverse such dire polling figures, they have to do more to distinguish their position from that of the Conservatives. In the 20 months of this parliament, the two parties have collaborated much more closely than was ever thought possible pre-2010, but this has meant them being criticised for turning their back on those who voted for them just to prop up a radical Tory government. People are rightly sceptical about their ability to offer anything different, so from now on they will need to be much more assertive. The loss of one of their most belligerent members will not do anything to help them in this on-going struggle.