Following the departure from Government of Chris Huhne has come the inevitable firing up of the Westminster Speculatron: there was hardly a pause as Huhne was replaced by Ed Davey – himself replaced by Norman Lamb – before the punditerati weighed in on how a conviction could damage the Coalition. Or not. Out of the traps early doors was Benedict “famous last words” Brogan at the Telegraph.
Ben had got the idea into his head that Huhne getting guilty would somehow make matters worse particularly for Corporal Clegg. But his examples don’t stand much scrutiny: the idea of using Huhne as some kind of modern day parallel to Jonathan Aitken doesn’t ring true, and in any case Aitken was undone not by criminal indictment but his recourse to law after the Guradian exposed his business dealings.
And Brogan’s line of the Tories bringing up the Huhne case at the next General election to discredit Clegg doesn’t sound right either: for instance, Aitken was jailed in 1999, but the affair did not feature in the subsequent election campaign. But Ben does have a point when he states the obvious: if Huhne gets sent down, there will have to be a by-election in Eastleigh.
Until 1992, Eastleigh had been solidly Tory. What ended all that was the death in what might be called controversial circumstances of its then MP Stephen Milligan, who had secured over 50% of the popular vote in 1992. The subsequent by-election came at the nadir of “Shagger” Major’s popularity and it was perhaps inevitable that the Lib Dems would benefit.
David Chidgey, and later Chris Huhne, had to work hard to keep their noses in front, with Huhne’s 2010 majority of just over 3,500 the best result (as was his 46.4% of the total vote). What would happen to Huhne’s pile of 25,000 votes is the great imponderable: the Tories would hope to take the seat back with just a moderate swing, and would expect a jailing to help their cause.
That, though, might not happen: in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2010, Labour’s Phil Woolas was removed after a complaint over his campaign, but the party retained the seat in the subsequent by-election with an increased majority. And when the Tories complained about the 1997 result in Winchester (adjacent to Eastleigh), the Lib Dems turned their majority of just two into more than 21,500.
Added to that, Labour – who don’t look to have much of a hope in any by-election contest – could take votes from the Lib Dems if they run the kind of positive campaign that held Birmingham Edgbaston for Gisela Stuart. And the Tory vote isn’t a given, with UKIP looking to peel off a few thousand with its characteristic message of routine Europhobia.
So one just one count, I agree with Ben. But the result might not be as expected.