Huhne resignation triggers uncertain by-election

Chris McSweeney investigates speculations over party confidence and strategy

Last Monday, former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne resigned from his Eastleigh seat due to on-going legal proceedings. The implications for the LibDem party could be interesting, as his perennially safe seat will now open to an impending by-election.

The loss of Chris Huhne himself will be a significant blow to the party, as Huhne was one of their most prominent MPs. After narrowly missing the nomination for Lib Dem party leader to Nick Clegg in 2008, Huhne was the architect of many of the Liberal Democrats’ green policies, endearing him to many climate-concerned voters.

Huhne’s pro-green interests eventually led to his appointment as Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the wake of the 2010 election.

However, he was forced to resign his position in February of last year, following the announcement of his prosecution for perverting the course of justice. Now that Huhne has pleaded guilty to the charge and resigned as an MP, this could prove to be a PR nightmare for the already unpopular LibDems.

Commentators have speculated that this is a unique opportunity for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Clegg’s party will have the chance to prove they won’t be wiped out in the 2015 election, while Cameron will be keen to prove they can win a majority. Snatching a safe seat from their Coalition partners will be a significant moral victory. Labour have not typically been competitive regarding the Eastleigh seat, and therefore will likely not set aside significant resources to campaign in the constituency.

There will however be equal dangers to both parties, as UKIP will look to seize the oppportuniy to assert their potential as an electoral force at Lib Dem’s expense. Immediately following Huhne’s resignation, it was widely speculated that Nigel Farage might make a bid for his seat, as he famously ran for the constituency in 1994.

The UKIP leader has denied this, stating that he has no intention of running for the seat as he is committed to his MEP role.  Farage stated, “We already have a dozen excellent people who have put their names forward to stand as the UKIP candidate in Eastleigh. Whoever is chosen will have my full support, and the support of everyone in the party”.

According to the latest Ipsos MORI polls, the LibDems are at their lowest level of public support since 1990, while support for UKIP is at an all-time high. It is as of yet unclear what effect the resignation of Chris Huhne will have on the LibDems’ chances of holding Eastleigh, yet it is certain the Conservatives and UKIP will be aiming for a victory.

Huhne’s trial is ongoing, as is that of his ex-wife Vicky Pryce, who is also being tried for the same offence. Ms Pryce brought the case to the attention of the police in May of 2011, following Mr Huhne’s alleged act of infidelity.

Chris McSweeney