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A convoluted London affair

A convoluted London affair

Huhne resignation further weakens Cameron’s European hold

by David Marsh

Mon 6 Feb 2012

In European public life, there are some reassuringly fixed behavioural laws. If ministers or top officials in Germany or Switzerland have to resign, as recent examples have shown, it's nearly always about principle or money. In Britain, when such departures happen, sex is never far away. So it was on Friday when high-flying Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, energy minister in David Cameron’s coalition, was forced to step down from the British cabinet. The action undermines the coalition’s cohesiveness, further weakens Cameron’s European credibility and will have at least an indirect impact on the UK’s contribution to resolving the euro sovereign debt crisis.

In the UK the slogan ‘cherchez la femme’ retains validity. The Huhne case revolves around two women. Had it not been for a convoluted illicit affair with a PR consultant, which last year sparked Huhne’s divorce from long-time spouse and well-known economist Vicky Pryce, the saga would never have sparked the politician’s fall from grace.

On the European stage, Cameron has lately cut a less convincing figure. Tory back-benchers are asking whether the prime minister’s attempted blockade against European Union treaty changes is worth the bother. Early successes chalked up by Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Monti have weakened Cameron’s relative influence in European bargaining.

Now that Huhne has quit his job to defend himself against charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice, Cameron has lost an ardent pro-European just when he needs to burnish his European credentials in the eyes of foreign partners. Huhne – although often clashing with Cameron on European and party issues – has been an important component behind a fragile political balance. His authority in energy and climate change questions is widely recognised. Huhne’s departure reduces the general level of expertise and intelligence in a cabinet not renowned for extraordinary competence.

Before he moved over into politics, quick-thinking Huhne made his name and then his fortune first as a business journalist and then as co-founder of the IBCA rating agency, later sold to Fitch. The Liberal Democrat resigned from office after the public prosecutor announced he would be charged with persuading former wife Pryce to accept speeding points on his behalf. The politician’s slide began in 2010 after the allegations about the speeding points, dating back to 2003, appeared in the press soon after Huhne left Pryce for another woman. Scorned Pryce seems to have regretted her alleged earlier decision to cover up for her erring husband. Unfortunately for her, she will have to appear in court too.

Argumentative and irritating (especially for the Conservatives) though the former cabinet minister may be, as the European debt crisis drags on and Cameron considers how best to re-engage with Europe over bail-out mechanisms, the UK government could profitably use someone of Huhne’s experience and knowledge.

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