After Chris Huhne changed his plea this morning, and owned up to an offence that routinely carries a custodial sentence, a number of media players will be queuing up to claim credit, although the only ones that actually matter are the Times, and to a lesser extent the Mail. The thought also enters that Huhne’s former wife Vicky Pryce might just have been dropped in the mire by his admission of guilt.
An MP going to jail means only one realistic outcome, and that is that they cease to be an MP. OK, technically the sentence needs to be at least 12 months to cause them to be kicked out automatically, but the idea that Huhne could remain in office after being sent down is not credible. And his ejection would mean one thing, a by-election in Eastleigh (Huhne has now said he will step down).
The constituency had been solidly Tory for almost 40 years before the 1994 by-election triggered by the death of Stephen Milligan, a former journalist who had been an MP for less than two years. The Lib Dems have held the seat since, first via David Chidgey, who was succeeded in 2005 by Huhne, a former MEP. Apart from at the by-election, the Lib Dem majority has not been great.
In fact, Huhne’s victory margin in 2010, at just under 4,000 votes, has been the highest since 1994. And the runner-up – again, except in 1994 when it was Labour – has been the Tories. This means that it’s effectively a straight fight between the two Coalition partners, and with the Lib Dems performing well in local elections, the Tories might not get the gift they are hoping for.
How well is that? After last year’s local elections, the Lib Dems held 40 of the 44 seats. Just stop and think for a moment: at a time when the party’s vote was in meltdown elsewhere in the country (in Crewe, they went from two sitting councillors to two third places in the town’s South ward), Chris Huhne’s party actually gained ground in Eastleigh.
So they will go into the by-election campaign with more than just an outside chance of retaining the Parliamentary seat. For Labour, there is no realistic expectation of victory, so Mil The Younger and the gang can sit this one out if they want – but no doubt they will give it a try, and if successful, their profile will be given a temporary but very significant boost.
The joker in the pack – or so they would like to think – will be UKIP, who despite all the press coverage have still not managed an Orpington or Birmingham Ladywood moment. The party has put up a candidate in all of the last five elections in Eastleigh, and all five times that candidate has lost his deposit. That includes the candidate who represented the party in the 1994 by-election.
You may have heard of him. His name was Nigel Farage.