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A lesson of the Huhne affair: Cameron isn't in full charge of the Cabinet

by Paul Goodman

Let's imagine that a Tory Cabinet Minister was effectively being accused by his wife of passing on to her his speeding points, that his denials were less than full or persuasive, and that a possible police investigation was looming.

And let's go on to conjecture that Downing Street's official spokesman originally said that the Prime Minister had "full confidence" in the Minister - but that, when probed directly, Cameron merely said that the Minister concerned "denied the claims".

You know what would follow.  The Prime Minister would come under intense media pressure, and the Minister concerned would soon leave the Cabinet to "clear his name".  But today, Chris Huhne is still in place and there's no sign of an imminent departure.

The smaller part of the reason for the Climate Change Minister's limpet-like hold on office is the obscure emergence of the allegation: his wife has claimed directly that someone else took speeding points for Huhne, but not directly that she herself did.

The larger part is, in effect, an unwritten part of the Coalition Agreement - one which has been quietly accepted by the media and MPs almost without anyone noticing.  It's this: Cameron is in charge of Conservative Cabinet appointments, Nick Clegg in charge of Liberal Democrat ones.

Huhne was apparently summoned to a 15-minute summit with Clegg - not Cameron - yesterday.  Afterwards, "a source close to the Deputy Prime Minister" said that "Chris denies all the allegations and Nick has full confidence in him."  (Please note: Clegg's nose is several inches longer today than it was yesterday.)

And that's it.  Clegg does the business, and the heat's off Cameron.  Huhne carries on to fight another day, or at least for a few more hours.  Coalition's an unusual business with unusual requirements, but it's worth noting that Cameron is the first modern Prime Minister to have relinquished control over four appointments to his own Cabinet.

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