His comments to James Macintyre on the 50p tax rate made headlines. The controversial Lib Dem talks about Nick Clegg’s survival, and strains in the coalition
Listen to James Macintyre’s interview with Chris Huhne here:
Chris Huhne opened a new rift in the cabinet when he told Prospect that scrapping the 50p top rate of income tax would be “just a way of helping the Conservatives’ friends in the City to put their feet up.” The attack made headlines, together with his threat that “there are simply not going to be the votes for it in the House of Commons” because the Liberal Democrats would help block such a move.
Huhne was careful to make a non-ideological, economic case against cutting the rate, not a moral one. He argued that it would have a “disincentive effect,” because those earning over £150,000 per year would “get extra income without any extra work.” But the Guardian noted that the “friends in the City” quote was Huhne’s most combative intervention against Conservative cabinet colleagues since he confronted them, including Chancellor George Osborne, over their aggressive “no” campaign against the alternative vote (AV) in May.
Huhne, a significant Lib Dem voice in cabinet on issues well beyond his brief as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, narrowly lost the party leadership to Nick Clegg in 2007, campaigning on a more left-wing ticket. He remains the bookies’ favourite to succeed Clegg—as well as acting as Clegg’s outrider, helping him “differentiate” the party from the Tories.
He had kept a low profile since claims surfaced that he had persuaded his now-estranged wife Vicky Pryce to take penalty points on his behalf for speeding, in order for him to avoid a ban. He denies the claims. But as the Liberal Democrats gather for their annual conference, he appears confident and ready for more controversy.
In his first public comments since that cabinet row over the Lib Dems’ “once in a generation” chance for electoral reform, Huhne says Tory behaviour ahead of the AV referendum was “frankly outrageous.” He denies talk that he came close to resigning, “because it wasn’t a question of my behaviour or of something that was personal to me, but it was very bad behaviour towards Nick Clegg, who was demonised.”
Last month, Prospect reported on discussions in the government about whether David Cameron could make Clegg Britain’s next EU commissioner in 2015, when Catherine Ashton’s term expires. This could pave the way for a new Lib Dem leader who might form an alliance with a Labour party that has said it will never now work with Clegg. Huhne says that Clegg would indeed “be a tremendous commissioner.” But he adds that “Nick has got a tremendous amount to do in government,” and that “every single decision of note has to go across his desk. I don’t detect in Nick any diminution of his appetite for dealing with issues and I don’t think that he’s the sort of person who’d want to give up something as responsible as being the deputy prime minister, and decide to go off and do something else. That’s not my reading of Nick—he’s not somebody who’s likely to quit half way through the game.”
Asked about his own leadership prospects, Huhne adds: “It seems completely ridiculous to think of anything other than Nick continuing as leader of the party. He’s a lot younger than me, more than ten years younger than me for Christ’s sake, and I think that Nick will see out my time in politics.” But perhaps the more powerful reason that the Lib Dems may look to, say, Tim Farron, the party’s president, (see Prospect’s diary, September 2011) as a future leader is because, for the party faithful, Huhne and other ministers may be too tainted by joining forces with the Tories.
Huhne says that in May 2010 the Lib Dem negotiating team “tried to explore [an alliance with Labour] seriously because obviously there were some things which we could have done which we couldn’t do with the Conservatives.” But, he insists, “there wasn’t an option to go in with Labour.” Its MPs lacked the will to stay on, he says, and the numbers in parliament for a “progressive alliance” didn’t add up to a majority.
That is debatable. But according to Huhne there is “no truth whatever” in the claim of Andrew Adonis, the former Labour transport minister, that the Liberal Democrats came to the table having already decided to side with the Tories. He also denies an assertion, in Alistair Darling’s new memoir, that Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, had put “the frighteners” on Clegg to side with the Tories because of the scale of the deficit. Huhne says Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, offered the Lib Dem team a “briefing” from King as well as the permanent secretary to the Treasury, but “we had come to an independent view… that we were going to need to move further than the plans that Alistair Darling had set out [for halving the deficit in four years].”
Huhne insists that, despite the failure of AV and low poll ratings, the Lib Dems are making their mark on government. “What I do see is a party that’s got a very distinct set of values—distinct from Labour and distinct from the Conservatives—that revolves around fairness.” He also claims he has “no regrets” about joining forces with the Tories, citing civil liberties as one area of common ground. But with his latest remarks, Huhne has opened up rifts on fiscal policy and the economy: the issues most likely to determine whether or not the coalition fights the next general election as an alliance—and most likely to determine the fate of both parties.