Sholto Byrnes

It could be him

Sholto Byrnes talks to Chris Huhne, second favourite in the Lib Dem race, about coalitions, privacy and the Austro–Hungarian empire

Sholto Byrnes talks to Chris Huhne, second favourite in the Lib Dem race, about coalitions, privacy and the Austro–Hungarian empire

Until a couple of weeks ago, the name of Chris Huhne was known only to the most dedicated followers of politics, and a few economists. Now the MP for Eastleigh, who won his seat last May, could just be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. The odds against Huhne succeeding Charles Kennedy have dropped from 300–1 to 5–2; in the last few days he has overtaken the party president, Simon Hughes, to become the second favourite after the deputy leader, Sir Menzies Campbell.

‘It’s the sharpest shortening of odds in the history of political betting,’ says Huhne, one of whose aides expresses deep regret at not having placed a tenner on his boss when he seemed a no-hoper. But the truth is that Huhne’s chances were always better than that. In a small party like the Liberal Democrats, being elected to Parliament — any parliament — counts for a lot. Huhne was an MEP for six years, from 1999 to 2005, winning his seat in the South East region, in which more than a fifth of Lib Dem members live; and it is the members who are the electorate in this contest. ‘I’ve got more party contacts than perhaps people gave me credit for,’ he says. ‘I’ve eaten an awful lot of rubber chicken in my time.’

Coming second could be enough for him to take the leadership, because the election is a preferential vote. Hughes and Campbell are better known, but both divide the party. The former is considered disorganised and very much of the Left, while the latter is thought to be weak and inexperienced in domestic policy. The thinking is that supporters of both are likely to list Huhne as their second preference, so if either Hughes or Campbell comes third, Huhne could pick up sufficient votes to win.

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