A politician resigns and no one cares
The fall of Chris Huhne may have thrilled the Westminster village, but for the rest of us it barely registered.
As political scandals go, that which prompted the Lib Dem coalition minister Chris Huhne to resign on Friday was pretty low-rent stuff, even by today’s expense-fiddling standards. For those unfamiliar with the latest round of palace intrigue, Huhne may or may not have got someone else, who may or may not have been his then wife, to take the blame for a speeding offence in March 2003. Eat your heart out, Profumo.
Perhaps the only thing more insignificant than Huhne’s alleged offence was the impact his departure has made on the public. In fact, this may be the most telling aspect to the whole tedious affair. It provides a snapshot of just how insular and isolated British party-political culture has become. So while politicos in and around parliament were fainting with excitement, the rest of us, it is fair to say, could barely contain our indifference.
There is an obvious reason for this barely registering as a breeze in a teacup among non-residents of the Westminster village. From the very start, the Huhne affair has had very little to do with the public. There was never any particular anti-Huhne sentiment, despite his oh-so-green, wind power-obsessed role at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Nor was there much in the way of outcry over his alleged offence – the fact that last summer, 300,000 Brits admitted to having taken the blame for someone else’s speeding offence indicates just how seriously such a ‘crime’ is taken. No, what undid the ex-energy secretary derived its force almost entirely from within the political and media class itself.
For The Humbling of Huhne was always a case of office politics mistaken by those ensconced within the environs of Westminster for politics proper. In the absence both of big ideas and the social constituencies whose interests these ideas mediated, gossip and personal enmity have come to be treated as if they signify something of profound political significance. Hence in every account of Huhne’s fall, it is Huhne’s character, his personality, that is to the fore. It almost seems that what parliamentary colleagues thought of Huhne the person provided the real underpinning for driving him from cabinet, despite ministerial code stating that a serving minister can continue in their role while a criminal investigation into his/her private affairs is ongoing. But today of course, in these still sleaze-focused times, the personal really is political.
‘Some Labour and Lib Dem MPs who respect the former energy secretary’s brains and drive (not all do) do not warm to him personally’, wrote the Guardian‘s Michael White. Likewise the Sun‘s Trevor Kavanagh focused on Huhne’s character: ‘His ruthless ambition and the compulsion to leak poison about other ministers have made Mr Huhne the object of deep distrust and dislike.’ Even the attempts to defend Huhne devolve upon his character. ‘[Huhne’s] critics (and there are a lot) acknowledge his cool under fire’, reported The Sunday Times: ‘He is a politician with balls of steel.’
All of this chatter and cod psychologising might be politically thrilling for those immersed in the office politics of Westminster, be they sat on parliamentary benches or spectating from the press gallery. For the rest of us, however, it is about as politically significant as, well, other people’s office gossip.
But there is another aspect to the Huhne affair which is even more indicative of the insular nature of today’s political class than its bitchy self-obsession. And that is the way in which Huhne was effectively brought down, not by the court of public opinion, but by a prospective appearance in a court of law. Huhne’s fall almost completely bypassed the public sphere.
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Think back to the source of Huhne’s problems. His estranged wife Vicky Pryce was interviewed, for reasons that can only have been related to the potential embarrassment it might have caused him, in The Sunday Times in mid-May last year. To the question of whether it was true that Huhne had asked someone else to take his speeding penalty points, Pryce answered: ‘Yes… But look, there is such huge pressure on politicians to be everywhere at once, especially early in their career, so that they are visible — huge pressure — and he does drive a bit like a maniac.’ And that might have been that. Pryce had done her duty as the woman scorned, angry at her husband running off with his bisexual aide, Carina Trimingham, and proving more than capable of embarrassing him.
But, a few days after the interview, a member of the opposition, Labour MP Simon Danczuk, decided that it was time Huhne was held to account. Rightly so, you might think, given that Labour is meant to be challenging the coalition government. But Danczuk didn’t criticise Huhne’s behaviour in public by, for example, challenging Huhne on his supposed actions. (Which is understandable in its own way: one suspects that criticisms of an alleged road-traffic incident nearly 10 years ago might not have had much public traction.) Instead, Danczuk called the police. And the police, desperately in need of some good PR in the light of accusations of political complicity following the original phone-hacking investigation, duly seized the opportunity to show just how politically neutral they are - by effectively helping to bring down an elected politician.
So it was that between May and November, Essex’s finest proceeded to assemble a case against Huhne, a process that not only involved several protracted interviews with the alleged culprits, but an attempt to take The Sunday Times to court in order to force it to hand over relevant emails between journalists and Pryce. By January, The Sunday Times had had enough of the legal pressure, and relented. Then, its sweaty palms wrapped around the incriminating emails, the Crown Prosecution Service announced just over 10 days later that Huhne would indeed have his day in court. That left Huhne with a decision to make. And so he resigned from the cabinet. announced that Huhne would indeed have his day in court which left Huhne with a decision to make. And so he resigned from the cabinet.
While nobody doubts the diligence with which the police pursued a speed-camera dodger, one is left wondering whether a decade-old traffic offence, with a spot of half-baked perjury thrown in, is worth the damage done to the sovereignty of those we actually elect to make laws. Surely it is better we hold politicians to account, through our elected representatives, than leave it up to judges - a principle to which one of our elected representatives, Danczuk, apparently remains oblivious.
But in many ways it is apt that Huhne was brought down by local bobbies, aided and abetted by antagonised workmates and an embittered ex-wife. For this was in essence a village affair. Which is what you get when politics does without a public.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.