What if Chris Huhne had beaten Nick Clegg to the Lib Dem leadership in 2007?
That was my contribution to a collection of ‘what if’ political histories with the still-just-about-reasonably-named “Prime Minister Corbyn and other things that never happened”. You can enjoy my chapter below, and for more (and better), you can get the whole book yourself from Amazon or Biteback.
Sitting squat and unloved on a north London industrial estate is a dull rectangular building. Its red-brick façade is topped by ugly green corrugations and only punctuated by a small number of characterless windows. Yet, for all the life-sapping mediocrity of the building’s exterior, inside it, amongst piles of paper and envelopes, the hopes and dreams of many are made and broken. For this is the home to Electoral Reform Ballot Services, the contractor of choice for elections of all sorts, from secretary of a small niche hobby group through to national political leaders hoping to be the next Prime Minister.
On 18 December 2007, it was the location of the Liberal Democrat leadership election count. Following Menzies Campbell’s resignation on 15 October, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne had been battling it out for the leadership of the party. Both were relative novices. The pair had been close friends and fellow MEPs; both were elected to Parliament for the first time in 2005. Strains in their friendship had surfaced when Chris Huhne had a tilt at the party leadership in 2006 after Charles Kennedy had stood down; Menzies Campbell had won, while Nick Clegg had sat the contest out. A year and a half later, Clegg and Huhne were direct opponents.
Aside from a brief would-be entrance to the race by Birmingham MP John Hemming – who quickly found that not enough colleagues were willing to nominate him – it had been a bruising and often ill-tempered two-horse race, with little sign of their past friendship. Clegg started as the favourite and initially appeared to be out in front by quite some margin. But during the race it was Huhne who appeared to be making up ground, performing better in the one major TV debate and picking up the majority of the declarations online from activists who said, ‘I was undecided, but now…’
YouGov’s record at polling party leadership races was still in its infancy, so no one put too much weight on its one poll, which gave Clegg a clear but not crushing twelve-point lead (56 per cent/44 per cent). Moreover, that YouGov poll had recorded half of the party’s members as having not yet voted.
Telephone canvass returns for both leadership campaigns also seemed to show a steady uptick in Huhne’s support. Huhne’s camp were convinced that the race was just like a traditional parliamentary by-election of the Liberal Democrat heyday, with a huge swing in support to their man in the last few days.
So there were nerves and hopes all around as the two campaign teams assembled in the pedestrian surroundings of the count, where the postal votes from tens of thousands of party members would be processed.
At the previous leadership election count, updates on how it was looking were leaked and used by some enterprising members to place highly profitable last-minute bets. As a result, this time a tight technology quarantine was imposed. The representatives of each leadership campaign had to hand over all their phones before being led into a sealed environment to watch the count itself play out.
A big lead for Clegg in the early ballot papers was steadily cut back as later and later postal ballots were opened. Nerves amongst the Clegg team, and hopes amongst the Huhne team, rose as it was clear that Huhne was leading strongly amongst party members who had voted late. The more recent the date stamp on the envelopes being opened, the more Clegg’s lead over Huhne was being cut.
Looming alongside all of this was the legacy of a postal strike, resulting in a mini-mountain of 1,300 or so postal votes that had been put to one side for arriving after the deadline.
As the pre-deadline votes were all finally tallied, and the Returning Officer and his staff double-checked the data and the calculations, it was clear to everyone that Clegg was just ahead. So what to do about those late votes? The two leadership camps were informally sounded out: would they be happy for the late votes to be counted? If so, they would be, but if there was no agreement, they would not.
The Clegg camp, of course, said no. The rules had a deadline. Those votes had missed it. They shouldn’t count and their man should be leader.
So far, this is what happened. The result was duly announced. Clegg beat Huhne by 20,988 to 20,477, a margin of just 511 votes (1.2 per cent). Well-sourced reports suggest that those late votes would have tipped the contest to Huhne if they had been counted. So the result could have been very different if the Huhne camp had known just one detail of the party’s history…
18 December 2007, Electoral Reform Ballot Services
The two leadership camps were informally sounded out: would they be happy for the late votes to be counted? If so, they would be, but if there was no agreement, they would not.
The Clegg camp, of course, said no. The rules had a deadline. Those votes had missed it. They shouldn’t count and their man should be leader.
The Huhne camp, however, had other ideas, and one of its members nervously ran their fingers along the folded handwritten note they had written the night before. It had been triggered by a phone call from a supporter, wishing them luck at the count and adding, ‘I’m sure you know this already, but just in case the count is close…’ No one in the Huhne camp had previously known what they had been told.
Hence the note, sitting like a ‘get out of jail free’ card in their pocket with details of a largely undocumented and mostly forgotten incident from the party’s past.
With the voting so close and the uncounted votes likely to tip Huhne into the lead, now was the time to play it.
Yes, the Huhne camp agreed – it was important to stick by the party’s rules.
Yes, they agreed – the rules should not be changed, especially just for this one occasion.
But, yes, too – surely that also means that we should stick with the previous precedent for what to do when there is a postal strike?
Cue puzzled looks amongst the Clegg camp, caught unawares and wondering what postal strike this was all about. Puzzlement, followed by dread, as the details of a parliamentary candidate selection contest from several years previously were laid out. A party election that had been disrupted by a postal strike. A party election in which it was ruled that if members had posted their votes in good time then they should not be disenfranchised by a postal strike outside their control. All ruled, adjudged, counted, done and dusted. Precedent was clear. Count those late votes.
The Clegg camp objected, demanding details and arguing over the reliability of one partisan verbal account. The Huhne camp teased every drop of self-confident assertion it could from that one late-night phone call. Party officials retreated to a room outside the technology quarantine to hunt out urgently by phone and email anyone involved in that Westminster selection they could find.
Piece by piece, fragmented recollections were slotted together into a clear picture. The caller had been right. The precedent was there. But would the Clegg camp agree to follow precedence to a Huhne victory?
Wanting to minimise any lasting damage to the party over who ‘really’ won the contest, the Returning Officer, party chief executive Chris Rennard, wanted an outcome there and then that all sides would publicly agree to. He feared the damage that a protracted appeals process would do to the party. So he drafted a statement to be released alongside the result:
“A postal strike resulted in disruption in the delivery of some postal ballot papers for the Liberal Democrat leadership election. The spirit behind our rules is very clear – that party members get to choose our leader and if a problem occurs with their voting which is wholly out of their control, they should not lose their democratic rights as a result.
“This is also the principle the party followed during a previous contest which was disrupted by a postal strike. As with that precedent, this count has been conducted on the basis of including all postal votes which were posted in time to be received if there had not been a postal strike.”
Reading out his proposed statement, Rennard added,
“If anyone wishes to appeal this ruling, we will cancel today’s press conference, issue a holding statement that the result is being appealed and convene a full hearing of the party’s Appeals Panel tomorrow afternoon when its members have had time to gather from around the country for a meeting.”
That twist of timing had Clegg’s camp muttering, ‘Don’t they have phone numbers?’, but they knew what was being done. The motivation may have been to protect the party, but Clegg was being set up. He either had to agree with the ruling or face a blizzard of damaging publicity about trying to disqualify the votes of genuine party members. He would be forever the tainted bad loser, facing angry questions from party members about why he did not want their vote to count.
After only the briefest of pauses, Nick Clegg reluctantly nodded and said, ‘Let’s count those last votes and get this over with.’
18 December 2007, Liberal Democrat press conference
‘Look at the corners of their mouths,’ muttered one party staffer to another as they waited in a crowded room for the announcement, laptops perched on their legs ready to roll out a series of website updates, financial appeals and emails as the winner was announced.
Supposedly a regiment of poker faces, the twitches in the corners of the Huhne team’s mouths revealed what a well-sourced Sky journalist had already got running across TV screens: ‘BREAKING NEWS: Huhne beats Clegg by 28 votes. 0.07 per cent margin makes him new Lib Dem leader.’
1 April 2008, Daily Mail
LIB DEM LOTHARIO: NICK CLEGG REVEALS HE HAS SLEPT WITH ‘NO MORE THAN 30’ WOMEN IN A TOE-CURLINGLY FRANK INTERVIEW…
The defeated candidate for Liberal Democrat leader, who lost to Chris Huhne by just twenty-eight votes and cultivates an image as a clean-cut family man, has given an extraordinary interview in which he discussed how many women he had slept with…
Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe said Mr Clegg’s discussion of the number of his lovers was a ‘pretty horrible contribution to a society where morals have just collapsed’…
A backbench Liberal Democrat MP said, ‘If only he had got them all to join the party and vote for him, he would our leader now.’ A close friend of Mr Huhne’s added, ‘Chris is far too busy as party leader to get mixed up in anything like this. He barely has time to see his wife Vicky, let alone other women.’
3 September 2009, The Guardian
COALITION CHAOS GRIPS THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS
The frank admission by Liberal Democrat leader Chris Huhne that he would prefer a formal coalition in the event of a hung parliament has caused outrage in Liberal Democrat ranks.
Grassroots activists have long been suspicious of any moves by the party’s MPs to secure ‘bums on seats’ in ministerial cars. Now many are talking of betrayal after Huhne, the activists’ favourite in the leadership contest, admitted in a TV interview with Andrew Neil that he would lead his party into a coalition in a hung parliament.
Huhne’s apparently unscripted admission came after Neil repeatedly asked him what he would do in a hung parliament in the midst of economic crisis. ‘Would you really subject us all to an unstable government facing defeat every night in the voting lobbies, Mr Huhne? Or would you agree a coalition deal?’ asked Neil. Eventually, Huhne conceded that he was attracted by the stability offered by a formal coalition deal.
‘This is madness and electoral suicide. Telling votes we’d enter coalition with another party just says there’s no point in voting for us. You might as well vote Labour or Tory as that way you get to pick who you’d prefer in power rather than taking a lucky dip with us,’ said one backbench Liberal Democrat MP. ‘Doesn’t he remember what a disaster it was talking about Cabinet seats in 1992?’ added another.
The party’s conference organisers now fear a protest during Mr Huhne’s keynote speech in three weeks’ time. Conference security is being tightened to stop angry activists bringing in car seats to wave in protest during the speech. Organisers fear, however, that members of the Social Liberal Forum will use wheelchairs to smuggle in the protest props. ‘How can we say to a wheelchair user, “You look like you’ve got quite a lot of padding under your bum?”,’ lamented one conference steward.
23 September 2009, Chris Huhne’s speech to Liberal Democrat conference
It is fantastic to see so many party members in the hall today. I know some of you were worried that there would not be enough room for us all and brought your own seats. I salute your resourcefulness.
And I appeal to your honesty. Voters have a right to know what we would do in a hung parliament. If you’re out on the doorstep in Milton Keynes, Motherwell or Monmouth and a voter asks, you should give them a straight, honest answer.
You can’t one moment be telling them how great the economic crisis is facing Britain, then the next tell them that in a hung parliament we would vote for uncertainty. For risk. For instability.
You can’t one moment be telling them how great proportional representation is, then the next tell them that you don’t like coalitions.
We must be true to our beliefs. Our belief in PR. Our belief that the swings between political extremes have damaged Britain. Our belief that we need a competent, stable government to steer us back to prosperity.
And our belief that after hard negotiations, if we can do a deal to provide a stable government, we will.
If you are on the doorstep saying that, you won’t only be giving an honest answer. You’ll also quite possibly be giving the same answer as you’ve given them for what you have done on your local council.
Talks followed by a joint administration is exactly what hundreds of our councillors have successfully achieved up and down the country.
We know how valuable having people in post is. Because of all those decisions that get made in between council meetings, without needing any vote.
Just as locally, so too in Whitehall we need Liberal Democrats in there every day. Watching every office. Tracking every decision.
Not sitting over the road in Parliament on the sidelines, waiting for a few of those decisions to come to Parliament for a vote…
… And that is why I have asked the party’s Chief Executive to conduct a wide-ranging review of the organisational preparations we need to have in place for a viable coalition.
15 February 2010, agenda for ‘Coalition preparations committee’
- Apologies and minutes of last meeting
- Update on party membership consultation over plans for coalition
- Policy priorities update
- Deficit reduction
- Nuclear deterrent
- Tuition fees
- Civil nuclear power
- Items for debate at spring conference
- Organisational priorities update
- Distribution of ministers across departments (see attached note from David Howarth)
- Short Money funding for coalition partners (see attached note from Whips’ Office on required rule changes)
- Special advisers – numbers/allocations
- Feedback from Liberal International/sister parties
- Date of next meeting
15 April 2010, first TV election debate, twenty-three minutes in
David Cameron: You’ve heard Chris Huhne tonight say he’s something different. Yet he also says he wants to form a coalition with either Gordon or myself. Well if it’s just a choice between the two of us, look at us both and pick the one you want. What’s the point in voting for the Liberal Democrats and not knowing who you’ll get as Prime Minister when instead you can make the choice for yourself? Look at Gordon. Look at myself. Pick the one you really want.
Gordon Brown: I agree with David.
The #IAgreeWithDavid hashtag was used seventeen times on Twitter that night, of which eleven were from a Chicago chemical plumbing supplies firm.
1.15 a.m., 6 May 2010, BBC election night programme
David Dimbleby: As the latest rush of results confirm the accuracy of our exit poll, you can see the smiles in the back room where the numbers are being crunched. But, turning back to you, Peter Kellner, there isn’t much smiling at Liberal Democrat HQ. They look set to win only forty-six seats – down sixteen on the 2005 result. Tell me, what’s gone wrong for their new party leader, Chris Huhne?
Peter Kellner: David, as the exit poll predicted, this is turning out to be a bad night for the Liberal Democrats. Around one in four Liberal Democrat MPs are set to lose their seats. What our exit poll shows is that the party has been badly squeezed by both Labour and the Tories. It looks like that ‘I agree with David’ moment from the first TV debate – which we’ve heard endlessly in the last few weeks – had an impact. Voters decided to pick the big party they wanted rather than take a punt on the Liberal Democrats choosing a coalition partner for them. Huhne must now be deeply regretting talking openly about leading his party into coalition. The one saving grace for them is that we look set for a hung parliament, so Huhne may yet still get that coalition with Cameron.
7.03 a.m., 6 May 2010, BBC election night programme
David Dimbleby: Joining me now is the former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel. David, the mathematics of our new parliament are looking pretty clear, aren’t they? It’s going to have to be a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition?
David Steel: As someone whose heart is on the centre-left, it grieves me to say so but I think you are right. Huhne will have to sit down with Cameron for some serious negotiations.
Dimbleby: But wouldn’t you prefer a rainbow coalition with Labour, David?
Steel: It is an option that the Liberal Democrats would be wise to keep open until any talks with the Tories are concluded, but your viewers can do the maths just as well as you or I. With our tragic seat losses overnight, Labour and the Liberal Democrats together don’t have enough seats for a centre-left coalition. You’d need what they call a ‘rainbow coalition’, including all sorts of very uncomfortable nationalist MPs from different parts of the United Kingdom. The maths might work for a single vote, maybe, but any agreement needs to work for the tenth vote, the fiftieth vote and the five-hundredth vote too.
17 May 2010, Daily Mail
CUTS FOR YOU, CASH FOR THEM: TRUE BILL OF LIB DEM HYPOCRISY REVEALED
Sanctimonious Liberal Democrat MPs have been telling voters there is no alternative to big spending cuts. But behind the scenes they have been going on a spending spree on themselves, and many of their close friends are getting the benefit.
TWENTY-SIX new Special Adviser posts (Spads) have been created just for the Liberal Democrats – even though the party previously attacked Labour for increasing the number of Spads.
Despite taxpayers having to pay for the posts, taxpayers don’t get a chance to apply for them as they have been rushed through, with friends and colleagues of Liberal Democrat MPs appointed instead.
£1.75 MILLION IN TAXPAYER FUNDING – the cheeky Liberals have demanded they keep their £1,750,000 taxpayer cash which the party used to receive for being in opposition. Now Lib Dems say the ‘Short Money’ is still theirs – even though they’re in government.
‘The Liberal Democrats want money for being in government and money for being in opposition at the same time. Yet they have the cheek to tell us there isn’t enough money for our public services,’ said Labour MP Tom Watson.
8 June 2010, The Times
BRITAIN SET FOR SNAP ELECTORAL REFORM REFERENDUM IN AUTUMN
The promised referendum on electoral reform could happen as early as September, after a dramatic confrontation between Deputy Prime Minister Chris Huhne and senior civil servants. According to people in the room, the Liberal Democrat leader threatened to ‘send you lot to count the paperclips on a Coventry industrial estate’. The outburst came after civil servants claimed that the complexity of the legislation required for the alternative vote referendum meant it could not be held until May 2011 at the earliest.
Chris Huhne’s spokesperson denied that the paperclips comment was made. But she confirmed that Mr Huhne had brought to the meeting a complete draft Bill ‘written over the weekend’ by Cambridge academic and Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth. ‘Mr Huhne politely but firmly made the point that if David could write a good Bill in a weekend the civil service should be able to write one in a fortnight,’ said the spokesperson.
11 June 2010, Mark Small, Liberal Democrat blogger
Chris Huhne currently seems obsessed with pushing through the AV referendum as quickly as possible. In many ways it is an odd obsession as AV has never been top of the Lib Dem PR love-in hit list. But Huhne is probably right to calculate that the sooner the vote, the higher the chance of victory.
We have already seen a raft of potentially controversial decisions on education, the environment and welfare reform, carefully timed to avoid public decision-making this year, clearing the way for an AV referendum vote before too many of the realities of compromise with the Tories hit.
Better then to rush and hold the vote during the government’s honeymoon, however little time that gives the electoral reform campaign to organise.
30 December 2010, Chris Huhne’s New Year message to party members
… This most momentous year in our party’s history has also been one of the toughest. We can look back on what we have achieved this year with pride. Liberal Democrats back in government. Avoiding the economic disasters of Greece. Our electoral system reformed…
David Laws is leading the way to a more liberal education system, prioritising help for the most disadvantaged at the Department for Education. Nick Clegg is keeping Britain on an internationalist course as the Cabinet member for Europe. Vince Cable is deploying all of his expertise in development economics helping some of the poorest people in the world as the man in charge at DFID…
Next year will be even tougher. There are many debates yet to come and I know that tuition fees are top of the list. Together we made a clear commitment at our special conference in Birmingham when we voted to go into coalition. So if the Conservative Secretary of State for Business Ken Clarke insists on implementing the Browne Review, we will stick to our commitment in the coalition agreement. If a Conservative minister pushes ahead with a Conservative policy rather than abolishing fees, we will honour the coalition programme you voted for and abstain…
9 March 2011, BBC evening news headlines
Now more on our lead story, the government abandoning its tuition fees policy in the face of a backbench rebellion that was threatening to see its legislation defeated.
With both Conservative and Liberal Democrat rebels set to vote against the government, David Cameron decided this evening to pull the legislation to implement the Browne Report after he failed to persuade the Deputy Prime Minister Chris Huhne to back the legislation rather than abstain in the vote.
6 August 2012, The Sun
BYE BYE DEMOCRACY
Gloating Labour leader expects to be in 10 Downing Street by the weekend – AND WITHOUT AN ELECTION.
Bacon sarnie-loving Labour leader Ed Miliband has been telling friends he will be installed as Prime Minister by the weekend. As Cameron and Huhne come to blows over House of Lords reform, the cheeky Labour leader is hoping that multimillionaire Liberal leader Chris Huhne will sneakily switch sides and make him Prime Minister.
‘It’s outrageous,’ said Tory MP Peter Bone. ‘Even my wife knows that the Liberals can’t just plant whoever they like in Downing Street.’
7 August 2012, The Times
GOVERNMENT ON VERGE OF COLLAPSE OVER LORDS REFORM
Emergency all-night talks between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to rescue the government from collapse over House of Lords reform ended without agreement.
The simmering parliamentary row over the timetabling of the House of Lords Reform Bill broke out into a full-scale political crisis earlier this month after Lib Dem leader Chris Huhne warned Cameron that he would use his party conference speech to announce a withdrawal from government unless Cameron whipped his MPs into supporting a parliamentary timetable for Lords reform. With many Tory rebels on record opposing the measure, Cameron has been at pains to point out that he cannot deliver what Huhne wants – and that if Huhne does not back down, the government will fall.
Some Conservatives have been sounding out right-wing Liberal Democrat MPs to see if a coup against Huhne for his high-stakes gamble could be encouraged. ‘If the Queen asked Nick Clegg to become her Deputy Prime Minister, would he really say no?’ speculated one Downing Street source.
However, Tories fear that Chris Huhne is counting on remaining as Deputy Prime Minister regardless of who is Prime Minister. ‘He can remain Deputy Prime Minister regardless of who is in 10 Downing Street,’ said one Tory constitutional expert. ‘This could be the end for Cameron if he cannot make a deal.’
9 August 2012, The Guardian
LORDS REFERENDUM DEAL SAVES COALITION
A dramatic deal between Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Chris Huhne has saved the government from collapse.
With the Conservatives and Lib Dems at loggerheads over House of Lords reform, the deal will see the existing Lords Reform Bill mothballed. In return for this concession to Cameron, Huhne has secured agreement for a referendum on the subject on the same day as the next general election.
Although many Conservative backbench MPs are expected to rebel over the referendum, the Liberal Democrats are confident that Labour support will ensure the referendum legislation is passed quickly.
In return, Chris Huhne has agreed to make a public commitment not to oust the Prime Minister before the general election. This is expected to come in a speech to party activists on Saturday, securing David Cameron in 10 Downing Street until 2015.
The legislation for the referendum will be a near carbon copy of the AV referendum Bill, The Guardian understands, which was rushed through Parliament in just ninety-six hours in 2010. ‘Last time we left nearly all the details to statutory instruments or the Electoral Commission, so there isn’t much to change. Pretty much all we need do is delete “the alternative vote” and insert “an elected House of Lords”,’ said one Lib Dem source close to the talks.
24 May 2014, Mark Small, Liberal Democrat blogger
DIVISION AMONGST PLOTTERS SET TO SAVE HUHNE
Brace yourselves. The grim local election results already in make it an odds-on certainty that tomorrow’s European election count will see the number of Liberal Democrat MEPs slashed to a tiny handful.
In most parties, most of the time, such a bad result a year out from a general election would trigger a wave of soul-searching about whether to dump the leader and install a fresh face in time for the general election.
There is no shortage of would-be successors circling around Chris Huhne. Friends of Vince Cable (still bitter about the way Huhne blocked Cameron’s offer of BIS, switching him into a more peripheral post at DFID), Nick Clegg (still bitter about how Huhne ‘stole’ the leadership election) and Tim Farron (still bitter about his exclusion from government) have all been falling over themselves to helpfully point out stories which paint their would-be saviour in the best light.
But the very number of the plotters is their weakness. There is too much rivalry between them for unity – and without unity there will be no coup.
They all know the lessons of Michael Heseltine, orchestrating a coup to oust Margaret Thatcher and in so doing also dooming himself to failure in his bid to be her successor.
26 May 2014, Mark Small, Liberal Democrat blogger
ESCHER POLLING WILL SAVE HUHNE’S LEADERSHIP
Leaked Liberal Democrat polls are like London buses of yore. You wait ages for one to come along and then a whole batch come at once, although in the case of the polls they are all trying to take the party in different directions under different drivers.
Or is it that they’re like an Escher optical illusion? Because if the leaked polls are to be believed, Cable polls better than Clegg, who polls better than Farron, who polls better than Huhne … who polls better than Cable.
It is quite fun to read the passive-aggressive warnings from the different polling companies about how they didn’t use their normal methodology for each poll (though they took the money to do the polls anyway). But also quite boring once you’ve read the first few.
All that really matters is to know that with confusing poll numbers all round, there is no momentum for a coup.
7 May 2015, The Guardian
HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM SET TO BE VOTED THROUGH
Political reformers are starting to celebrate after the exit poll which got the general election result right also showed House of Lords reform being voted through by 57 per cent to 43 per cent in the referendum held alongside the general election.
Counting of the votes is not due to start until Monday but the clear margin shown in the exit polls means that even the ‘No’ camp are conceding defeat. Victory for Lords reform would be a consolation for Liberal Democrats as the party faces up to the worst election result in its history.
7 May 2015, Daily Telegraph
LIB DEMS LOSE A THIRD OF THEIR SEATS – BUT IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN WORSE WITHOUT AV
Britain’s controversial new voting system has saved the Liberal Democrats from disaster. Although Chris Huhne’s party lost a third of its seats in the general election, the rump of thirty-one MPs would have been even smaller without the preferential voting system used for the first time.
Amongst the Liberal Democrat MPs AV saved from defeat is Nick Clegg. Re-elected by a slim margin after the transfers of the Conservative candidate in his Sheffield constituency, his friends say he is already eyeing up a leadership challenge to Huhne.
Leaving his count with his wife, Vicky Pryce, the current Liberal Democrat leader Mr Huhne – re-elected with a reduced majority – told waiting reporters that he was not rushing to make any decisions about his or his party’s future.
One close friend of Clegg said last night, ‘Huhne has halved the parliamentary party over two elections. We need a new leader who will double it.’