Eleven months ago, as the naïve editor of a college magazine, I knocked at a secreted, modest house in the heart of Eastleigh, and interviewed a charismatic, charming and (apparently) genuine, politician named Chris Huhne.
Tentatively raising the driving licence affair that blighted – and has now ended – an esteemed political career in rather undignified fashion, he quickly distanced himself from any wrongdoing.
“I’ve said very clearly that I’m innocent. I intend to fight this in the courts, and I’m confident that the jury will agree with me.” He lied, before lying again in court. It was wrong, it was illegal, but was it really anything out of the ordinary?
In reality, this scandal would never have come to part had he not been caught speeding – a common offence, frequently irritating the general public since 1896.
Yet after Huhne’s actions, public perception of politicians now rests at an increasingly dismal low, with many viewing them as cheats and liars. That is – of course – a sweeping generalisation, but arguably there are aspects of truth in it. You only have to look at the expenses scandal, which saw three Labour MPs and a Conservative peer imprisoned, to see that MPs are not always sincere.
Others highlight the list of broken Liberal Democrat pledges to show political corruption. Granted, there is a difference between manifesto pledges not being fulfilled in coalition, and perverting the course of justice. But nonetheless, it remains true that politics is not the most honest of professions, as exemplified by one of the most senior politicians in Britain, Nick Clegg. The deputy prime minister claimed expenses on business class air travel, despite flying in economy during his time as an MEP, but never faced significant repercussions.
Ultimately then, the fate of politicians can often come down to luck. Most have been evasive or misleading at some point, some just experience heavier consequences than others. Huhne had the disadvantage of contending with a revenge-driven ex-wife, on a crusade to bring down her former husband for an offence she was clearly party to.
When you consider what Huhne actually did, it is easy to feel a pang of sympathy. He was caught speeding – hardly the crime of the century. He then made two stupid decisions: to put the points on Vicky Pryce’s licence and then to stick with the lie, because he wanted to maintain his career.
Yet this all happened 10 years ago – it seems a little harsh to bring the issue back up now. But it is upon margins such as these that the modern political career hinges – the phantom factor of luck plays a huge part. If someone pressed into events 25 years ago, they might find Cameron’s activities less than impressive, in the morally-toxic Bullingdon club at Oxford University, infamous for ritually ‘trashing’ restaurants.
Huhne was perfectly equipped to go all the way in politics, having attended Westminster school, the University of Paris and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he gained a first class degree in PPE.
Starting out as a journalist, he achieved quickly at The Independent and The Guardian, winning financial journalist of the year in 1989. The successes followed in politics, as his meteoric rise from MEP to leadership contestant in seven years saw him become a leading light in his party.
He also had a successful career in finance, becoming managing director of Fitch IBCA, and Vice-Chairman of Fitch Ratings. His economic CV then, ominously, is probably superior to that of the Chancellor, who reportedly dropped PPE because economics was “too hard.”
Yet, despite Huhne’s credentials, you can’t help but feel he’s underachieved in politics. Though his record as an MEP was excellent, six years seems too long for a man with such ambition. Though he achieved much in his position as environment secretary, he’s certainly got the temperament to go higher. And though he fought valiantly in two leadership contests, he lost twice.
His fateful speeding ticket has eliminated any chance of fulfilling his potential, after last week’s resignation. It leaves you wondering, for Huhne’s part, ‘what if?’
What if, had he remained a Labour supporter after graduating, would he have done under the Blair administration? What if, had he overcome the finest of margins and won the Liberal Democrat leadership, would the party’s fortunes have been under his stewardship? And most notably perhaps, what if, had he been the deputy prime minister in this coalition, would it’s fate have been?
Certainly, had he not been caught speeding and been in Clegg’s shoes, things would have been very different indeed, for the Liberal Democrats and perhaps even the country.