Keith Newbery: Chris Huhne - a spasm of honesty

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When Chris Huhne succumbed to an unexpected spasm of honesty, and brought his parliamentary career to a sordid conclusion, he provided us with one of the most fascinating by-elections of recent years.

The days between now and the vote on February 28 promise to be troublesome ones for the keepers of the Coalition. Huhne, for all his faults, was considered an effective constituency MP.

He did nothing to make the locals fall out of love with the Liberal Democrats, which means the blame for losing the seat will be laid firmly at the door of Nick Clegg. David Cameron’s leadership will also come under close scrutiny by the people of Eastleigh, who may punish his soft Left approach to key issues by lending their support to the UK Independence Party.

UKIP has no chance of pulling off a shock mid-term victory, which is why leader, Nigel Farage, decided against putting himself in the frontline.

But Cameron’s pledge on an EU referendum has put their raison d’être right in the spotlight and the Prime Minister may be distinctly rattled by the number of traditional Conservative voters who decide to fire a warning shot across his battered bows.

Tory activists are also likely to be less than impressed by his call for a ‘positive campaign.’

This was a clumsy hint for them to lay off Nick Clegg and focus on Conservative policies instead.

But it will cut no ice with grassroots Conservatives, who are anxious to distance themselves from Clegg and his party in order to bolster their chances at the general election. Their Lib Dem counterparts are also eager to emphasise that the coalition has always been a doomed marriage of convenience between two parties who each loathe 95 per cent of what the other stands for.

The streets of Eastleigh will be no place for the faint-hearted over the next week or two.

A furore has arisen over the BBC’s PC decision to play down the extent of Harold Wilson’s pipe smoking in a documentary. It reminded me of a tale about how cunning the old rascal was when it came to creating his avuncular image.

He was due to take part in a television programme, when he misplaced his trusty prop. “Quick, find it!” he ordered an aide. He then sauntered on set clutching the pipe as the filming began.

“Oh, look at me,” he beamed innocently, “I’d completely forgotten I still had my pipe with me!”

The image of a relaxed, cuddly fellow was immediately reinforced.