Wednesday 8 December 2010

Chris Huhne is right to stay in Cancun

There is good news tonight that Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg have decided that the climate secretary should stay in Cancun at the climate summit, and not return to London for the university fees vote.

As The Independent reported today, Huhne had been asked to play a very significant role in the summit, alongside the Brazilian environment minister, in trying to bridge the critical divide over whether developed and developing nations would accept a temporary extension to Kyoto commitments after 2012. That is a good and important role for a leading LibDem - who is both committed to action change, and to EU and global multilateral cooperation to achieve it.

Flying back to London for the vote, then back to Cancun again, would have meant that the only thing the public would have heard about the talks.

They deserve much more attention than that. Unfortunately, the media narrative has swung between '48 hours to save the world' coverage of Copenhagen a year ago to very little engagement at all with the barriers to a global deal, which is making Cancun a hard gradualist slog, and a somewhat frustrating exercise to attempt to get back on track towards a legally-binding treaty. (We were discussing these issues, and the EU's role in climate diplomacy beyond Cancun, at a Fabian seminar in Westminster today, and I'll try to return to the subject on the blog as the summit ends).

But I don't agree with Mark Pack's challenge to Labour over not agreeing to pair Chris Hunhe.

The government has a majority of 80 and we are only six months on from all that Coalition sunshine in the Downing Street Rose Garden. Despite the deep anxieties in the LibDem party over breaking their personal pre-election pledges to vote against any rise in fees, and a smaller amount of Tory discontent, they are not going to end up with insufficient support to pass it.

If they don't have enough votes, it would be because they hadn't won the argument. Flying Huhne back would be a very poor sign of the Coalition's health, the equivalent of parking ambulances outside the Commons in Speaker's Court. (And if Jim Callaghan wasn't prepared to go to the last resort even to survive a no confidence vote against Margaret Thatcher in 1979, it should be obvious that the Clegg/Huhne decision is right).

What Pack's piece does not reflect on is that there are some votes where pairing conventions aren't going to work, and not because of trench warfare between rival parties, but because of the online scrutiny, advocacy and transparency of which Mr Pack is a prominent advocate.

With websites increasingly tracking the voting behaviour of individual MPs, anybody who paired on a vote of this salience with specific groups of voters would doubtless be charged with 'not bothering to vote' on an issue, especially for the most salient votes where the Commons does still genuinely become the forum for a major public debate.

Asking for a note to be entered saying that they were opposed to the university fees policy - but were following a Westminster convention to assist the climate secretary - probably isn't going to work.

Labour's suggestion that Huhne could equally well be paired with a LibDem rebel, is fair, but would be rejected by most of his rebellious colleagues for similar reasons of constituency message and profile.

But the pairing row is largely a distraction. Fortunately, Huhne does have a de facto pair, according to the Guardian.

Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood, who is also in Cancun, has said he would have voted against the fees package if he were able to attend the Commons.

The climate secretary absolutely deserves support from those concerned with climate change in all parties for his efforts to push at the conference. Still, a two-for-one deal in the House of Commons to off-set his absence would probably be over-compensation.

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