Sunday, January 28, 2007

How Chris Huhne won the leadership election

Last year's Lib Dem leadership election was noticeably light on policy discussion, but two issues did achieve some prominence. On each of them the party now supports the line taken by Chris Huhne and opposed by Ming Campbell during that election.

The first issue is environmental taxation, which forms the centrepiece of the new economic policy adopted at last year's Conference in Brighton. Chris Huhne supported this strongly during the leadership election, but Ming was far less convinced - as I pointed out at the time.

The second issue was the setting of a deadline for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. This was the subject of a clash between Huhne and Campbell during the special Question Time programme that the BBC organised during the campaign. As its website reported:

The Lib Dem leadership challengers have clashed over when British troops should be pulled out of Iraq.

In a BBC Question Time debate, Simon Hughes and Chris Huhne pushed for troops to leave by the end of 2006.

Mr Huhne said he knew from his time in business that deadlines were the best way of ensuring things happened.

But Sir Menzies Campbell, who does not want to set a firm deadline, countered, saying: "There are 8,500 lives at stake. This ain't business."

Perhaps this is not such a surprise. Ming Campbell's appeal to the party and to the voters has never relied strongly upon his command of policy detail. It has always relied more upon his personal qualities - particularly gravitas (or "bottom", as they used to say in the 18th century). Such ideas as there were during the leadership campaign came largely from the Huhne camp.

But issue 309 of Liberator magazine (.pdf file downloadable from here) gives another clue to what was going on. The magazine's Radical Bulletin section wrote:

But how was Huhne to carve out a platform distinct from his rivals? Those present at the leadership hustings in East Grinstead found out when Lord Oakeshott, appearing on Huhne's behalf, for some reason chose to announce his campaign secrets from the platform.

He said a group of backers had looked for "wedge issues" that would get the relatively unknown Huhne noticed. They lighted on withdrawing troops from Iraq, not renewing Trident and a greater environmental emphasis as areas on which they could challenge Campbell and, presumably, win some supporters over from Hughes.

Oakeshott did not say that these issues were particularly dear to Huhne, merely that they were chosen from their ability to attract attention.

Yes, there was an element of calculation to the Huhne campaign. But I suggest the issues that would help the third candidate in a Lib Dem leadership election have a lot in common with those that would help the third party in a general election.

Which is why the Huhne line has become the Lib Dem line on two of the three issues he identified.

5 comments:

Will said...

And demonstrates how right it was to have an election rather than a coronation.

Niles said...

ISTR Clegg pointing out much the same at the time in a Guardian article that highlighed Huhne hadn't been all that green in EuroParl.

Tristan said...

Not surprising, they are politicians after all, they will do what's in their best interest to bolster their position (even in the arguably less power hungry LibDems...)

Jonny Wright said...

Niles: surely that's because Clegg was backing Ming, as part of the big stitch-up? Cleggy wasn't ready to be party leader yet, and the last thing he wanted was his old EuroParl buddy tying the position up for another decade, so they got Ming in (who was happy to have a shot at retiring as an ex-leader, rather than just another obscure MP).

If you believe the conspiracy theory, that is. Sounds rather far-fetched to me ...

readingliberal said...

And that's why the Party will adopt the Huhne line on the third at Harrogate. :-)