It was all going so well. A leadership election which I, for one, feared could enter the Olympics in the long-distance tedium category was actually proving a credit to our party. We were seeing two true Liberals reminding us of the core beliefs which we share; they were ably showing the world how different we are from what Ming, in one of his last good acts as leader, dubbed the cosy consensus. And I was still honestly undecided about whom I would support. All that ended today.
I doubt any of us are so naïve as to imagine that either camp in this election is above a spot of off-the-record briefing and less-than-flattering commentary on their opponent. In fact, if either camp wasn’t capable of it, I wouldn’t want them on the ballot paper: sending a guileless leader into a room with the other parties would be like asking the lamb to sit down with lions who’ve forgotten the Bible’s punch line and are feeling a bit peckish around teatime. All along, it has seemed that Huhne’s campaign has been less adept at this skill than Clegg’s – since his launch, his coded comments have been the more noticeable. That, indeed, might be forgivable from the man the media sees as ‘the other candidate’, the one who has to play catch-up. But there is a line somewhere, faintly drawn but definitely present, and it’s been crossed.
So, the Huhne team produced a briefing document on Clegg’s apparent flaws and gave it a florid title. I don’t have a problem with that, if they are competent enough to keep it to themselves. But either they showed it to the press or they couldn’t stop it getting to them. Either way, if Hogwarts ran a course in the dark arts of politics, Huhne clearly would be enrolled – and would prove to be no Hermione. On The World this Weekend – where, incidentally, Steve Goddard, future MP for Oxford East, gave an excellent interview – Chris Huhne just made it worse: he apologised for the title of the document, but not for its substance. If you are going to play bare-knuckle, you don’t say ‘sorry’ as you do it. If, on the other hand, you want to be Mr Nice, you’d play contrite. Encore: nul points.
Of course, there’s another level of irony. The implication of Huhne’s own version of a dodgy dossier is that a politician can’t change his mind or develop in his views. One wonders where that would leave the contributors of The Orange Book who later wanted to distance themselves from its ‘economic liberal’ extremes. If you are going to accuse your opponent of ‘flip-flops’, you better make pretty sure you aren’t open to the same allegation.
I had suspected that this election would be more about presentation and personality than about fighting for the policy heart of the party. In debates like that on Question Time, that has been the case. On that programme, when the final question came about ‘what is your opponent’s best quality?’, I was hoping that one of them would have the humour and the chutzpah to begin their answer: ‘he’s a good loser – and, if you don’t believe me, test it.’ Sadly, that clearly can’t be said of one of the candidates. Mr Huhne is proving himself a bad loser even before the votes are cast.