Briefings against Huhne as AV tensions bite

Huhne emerges from the Cabinet meeting after a stand-up row with the prime minister.
Huhne emerges from the Cabinet meeting after a stand-up row with the prime minister.

By Ian Dunt

Chris Huhne is the centre of attention in Westminster, as Cabinet-level tensions over AV spill out into the press.

The energy secretary prompted a bitter argument in Cabinet earlier this week when he repeatedly tried to get David Cameron and George Osborne to disassociate themselves from 'no' camp tactics, prompting a flurry of speculation about his leadership ambitions.

Various senior Tories have been briefing journalists that he is positioning himself for a shot at the leadership, after he failed in a 2007 bid against Nick Clegg.

His stand-up row with the prime minister is thought to have acted as a dog-whistle to fellow Lib Dems that he was prepared to stand up to the Tories.

It followed widespread surprise in Lib Dem circles at how vociferously Mr Cameron had campaigned for a 'no' vote despite agreements with the deputy prime minister that they would both take a backseat role.

Some of those present in the room had expected him to resign outside Downing Street that very moment, they told reporters.

Today's local elections are expected to deliver a bruising result for the Lib Dems, with 11 of their 25 councils, including Mr Clegg's home city of Sheffield, up for grabs.

The party will be left reeling if it loses the referendum on AV, as one of its key compromises with the Conservatives falls to pieces.

But even if there is a challenge to Mr Clegg's leadership, Mr Huhne is likely to see competition from Lib Dem president Tim Farron, who has strong support in the party.

Some sources are even reporting that Labour is already cautiously preparing for a general election, with Andy Burnham asking general secretary Ray Collins to draw up contingency plans for a 2012 poll.

Ed Miliband's decision to launch 18-month policy units suggested he believed the coalition would last the full five years, but the recent public split at the top of the government has forced some Labour figures to reassess their timetable.


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