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Chris Huhne MP on David Cameron, the press and that Isis article


Despite being 12 days into his second bid for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, with the odds already stacked heavily against him, Chris Huhne appears unperturbed as he poses for photographs on the gallery of the Oxford Union library. His assistant, Charity, isn’t so calm. She’s only been working for Chris for a couple of months, so this campaign is something of a baptism of fire for her.

Did the MP handle the pressure so well in the 2006 contest, or was he more like his apprehensive apprentice? “I’m certainly much more prepared than I was last time. The experience of a leadership campaign is like nothing else in politics: suddenly there are journalists waiting outside your front door, hoping to doorstep you in case there are a few words that they might be able to feed back to their newsdesks. So there’s a level of attention that you’re completely unprepared for unless you’ve done it before, and it can take you by surprise.”

Huhne had a slow start securing endorsements, but things are picking up for him. He’s keen to point out that the race has only really just begun: the party won’t reveal its decision until December 17. “It’s quite a long campaign, so it’s important to pace yourself.”

Not that his opponent, Nick Clegg, has been pacing himself. While Huhne was at pains to deny an impending challenge during the most recent party conference, Clegg announced he “probably would” run for leadership. But Huhne doesn’t think that the contest has to result in the fragmentation of the party. “Providing the contest is conducted in an amicable manner, which we did last time…it’s quite possible to turn it to the party’s advantage.” He seems keen on the idea that the press – Tony Blair’s “feral beast” – can boost the Lib Dem cause in the coming weeks.

But isn’t he ignoring the problem that Sir Menzies suffered through his time at the head of the party – a problem that came to a head in Brighton this summer? “There is an awful lot of triviality in the way the media cover anything, but that’s because people like to relate to things that give some hint of one’s character, which may be whether you have sock suspenders or whatever it happens to be…With someone as serious as Ming, it irritated him a lot.”

His 19 years as a journalist haven’t left him, and he remembers what drives the trade: “I do understand the interest in ‘what is your favourite band?’ and so on. There is a desperate desire for people in politics to be authentic, to have real people with real views which aren’t just confected in a focus group.” Is that a jibe at David Cameron? “I don’t know him well enough and I wouldn’t want to disparage him to that extent, but his interest for example in the green agenda is a pretty recent one…If you study the articles he wrote for Guardian Unlimited when he was a backbencher, before he stood for leadership, he hardly ever mentioned the environment or climate change.

“In fact, there are only three mentions of the word ‘green’ in his articles. One was Damian Green, MP for Ashford in Kent. The other was how he wasn’t to blame for Norman Lamont’s phrase about the ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery. The third was about the difficulties of speaking as a new MP from the ‘green benches’ of the House of Commons.”

There is one way in which Huhne can relate to Cameron, though. Both have had their Oxford lives picked to pieces by the press. With the Conservative leader it was his Bullingdon Club antics; and last week it came to light that Huhne penned an Isis article advocating drug use. “I don’t think it’s relevant, to be honest…I think you have to learn things and do things before politics and you’re not a real human being if you haven’t. I had lots of experiences which have formed me, and things which I would never dream of recommending, and things that are clearly part of my experience. But it was a long, long time ago – we’re talking about 1973. More than 30 years, for crying out loud!”

Finally, the question that has to be asked: when does he honestly believe that the Liberal Democrats will be in a position to win a General Election? “I wouldn’t have given up a safe seat in the European Parliament to take on a much more marginal seat if we weren’t very close to a tipping point. If it’s going to be this election or the next, I don’t know, but I’m convinced that we’re close to that tipping point where we’re going to remake the whole structure of British politics. After all, we’re a radical party. We’re not just about changing the government. We’re about changing the whole system of government.”

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