Greasy Pole: Calamity…Calamity
‘No more broken promises!’ bellowed Nick Clegg as the peroration to one of his contributions to the leaders’ TV debates during the 2010 general election. It sounded pretty good – a politician who could be trusted to do as he said he would. Except that it must also have started a lot of unconvinced voters asking some questions, like – ‘No More Broken Promises’? So had there been some in the past? When? Why? How many? What about? Who made them? Who broke them? And what were Clegg and his party offering to make us trust them now? Like when he was saying about Brown and Cameron that as they attacked each other ‘…the more they sound the same…I know many of you think that all politicians are just the same. I hope I’ve tried to show you that that just isn’t true.’
Well, we had some help in dealing with this last point last month, when two recently prominent providers of media-satisfying scandal in Clegg’s party were sent to prison, each for eight months, for the offence of perverting the course of justice. There was Chris Huhne, until recently the Minister for Energy and MP for the Hampshire constituency of Eastleigh. And there was Vicky Pryce who was his wife until their divorce. This distinguished couple were in court because in 2003 Chris Huhne, when he was an MEP travelling from Stansted Airport to his home, was clocked driving along a motorway above the speed limit, an offence for which his driving licence would be endorsed with three penalty points, leading to his being banned from driving. This happens to a lot of drivers, but Huhne’s problem was that his motoring performances (Pryce talked about him ‘driving like a maniac’) would undermine his ambition eventually to get into the House of Commons. At his request, Pryce agreed to sign the necessary form stating that she had been behind the wheel at the time.
The affair might have continued in this way, tense as it must have been for the participants, if the press had not heard rumours that Huhne was having an affair with Carina Trimingham who had been his press officer. Huhne decided he would be wise to tell Pryce about this, adding that he was leaving her that very day – and then dashing off to claim his place at the gym. In the circumstances it was hardly surprising that Pryce should look for revenge and approach the press about her taking Huhne’s speeding points. The rest, as they say, is history, except that in this case it is a history flavoured by some disturbing events relevant to Huhne and his drive to get to the top and to Clegg’s ravings about keeping promises.
Huhne had emerged into public attention in 2006 when he stood for election to the LibDem leadership in succession to Charles Kennedy, who had resigned because of his drink problem. The victor in that contest was Menzies Campbell, but he could not present the youthfully vigorous image the party felt it needed. So a year later he also resigned and the way was open for a contest between Clegg and Huhne. The campaign got lively with a complaint from Clegg about a press release from Huhne. After listing some criticisms, the release dubbed him ‘Calamity Clegg.’ Huhne responded that although he agreed with the content of the piece, he did not approve of the title which was the work of some ‘overzealous young researcher.’ In fact the author of the offending phrase was Huhne’s future partner Carina Trimingham.
Clegg won by 511 votes, but there were 1,300 votes which went astray in the post and which, when checked later, would probably have given victory to Huhne. In spite of such passing matters Huhne’s background as a money-making operator in the City (he is a multi-millionaire) and his triumph in the 2010 general election at Eastleigh, where he increased the LibDem majority from 568 to 3,864, made him a clear case for promotion. During his election campaign he successfully contained the affair with Trimingham, preferring to use the image of a devoted father of three, with photographs to prove it: ‘Family matters to me so much – where would we be without them?’ one of his leaflets told the local voters.
Later, in charge as Minister of Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government (reckoned to be the tenth most powerful in the Cabinet) Huhne managed to modify his former opinion that nuclear energy was a system which was ‘tried, tested and failed’ and instead argued that there were ‘issues’ (a favourite word for anyone trying to avoid an uncomfortable reality) ‘outside of the realm of nuclear safety, particularly that of the economics of it and the costs in capital to the nuclear operator.’
And in all this, where does Vicky Pryce stand? There has been a lot of sympathy for her: an article in the Sunday Times said she is ‘…for all her career success and steely public face … a surprisingly fragile soul…’ Which about covers the fact that to protect her then husband’s rocky standing she engaged in a conspiracy to condone his potential for driving dangerously. As she well knew, and as we saw in the scandals of David Laws, Lord Rennard and others, such tactics are commonly used in capitalism’s political jungles. Apart from that, Pryce is an economist, generously qualified and widely regarded for her readiness to grapple – no more effectively than the others – with capitalism’s tsunamis of crises. To some she is, as an economist, not able to claim to be entirely free of all responsibility over the present chaos, which serves as another exposure of Clegg’s clamorous assertion that the LibDems are better – more reliable and honest – than the others. And along with this, the system grinds on with its wars, poverty, disease, misery – Calamity Clegg if you like. Calamity Capitalism is more to the point.