DAVID Cameron and Nick Clegg were forced into a mini-reshuffle of their ministerial team today after the dramatic resignation of Chris Huhne from the Cabinet.
Mr Huhne quit as Energy and Climate Change Secretary to fight a criminal charge of perverting the course of justice after allegations that he asked ex-wife Vicky Pryce to take a speeding penalty on his behalf to avoid losing his driving licence.
In his resignation letter to Mr Cameron, Mr Huhne said he was standing down to mount “a robust defence” against the charge. Remaining in the Cabinet would be “distracting”, both to his legal fight and to his Government work, he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg announced later that his replacement at the head of the Department for Energy and Climate Change is business minister Ed Davey, who has won plaudits for his handling of the sensitive plans for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail.
Mr Davey’s promotion maintains the agreed proportion of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats around the Cabinet table fixed in the 2010 coalition negotiations.
But some Lib Dems will rue the departure of one of their hardest-hitting ministers, who was ready to stand up to Conservatives in Cabinet.
Mr Clegg said he had told Mr Huhne that he would like to see him “back in Government in a key position” if he clears his name.
The Lib Dem leader’s parliamentary aide Norman Lamb was promoted to Mr Davey’s former position in the Department for Business, while Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central Jenny Willott becomes an assistant Government whip.
Speaking at Admiralty House in Whitehall, Mr Clegg described Mr Huhne - who stood against him for the Lib Dem leadership in 2007 - as “a good friend and a close colleague”.
“He has been really a pioneer in new, ground-breaking policies which I believe will stand the test of time,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
“If he clears his name, as he wishes to, I have made it clear to him that I would like to see him back in government in a key position.”
Mr Clegg said he “totally understands” why the Eastleigh MP had decided to stand down as a minister, and described Mr Davey as “the right man” to replace him.
In a letter to Mr Huhne, the Lib Dem leader said he hoped he would “rapidly” clear his name so he could “return to play a key role in government as soon as possible”.
But in his own letter to the departing minister, Mr Cameron made no mention of a possible return to government, saying only: “Like the Deputy Prime Minister, I am sorry to see you leave the Government under these circumstances and wish you well for the future.”
Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce, who also faces a charge of perverting the course of justice, will appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on February 16.
The charge - which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment - will eventually be heard by a judge at Crown Court.
Mr Huhne announced his resignation in a 30-second statement outside his London home, less than an hour after Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer announced the decision to charge him.
Describing the prosecution as “deeply regrettable”, the 57-year-old MP said: “I am innocent of these charges and I intend to fight this in the courts and I am confident that a jury will agree.”
Mr Huhne made clear that he will remain MP for Eastleigh in Hampshire while he awaits trial.
“So as to avoid any distraction to either my official duties or my trial defence, I am standing down, resigning, as Energy and Climate Change Secretary,” he said.
“I will, of course, continue to serve my constituents in Eastleigh.”
Ms Pryce, a prominent economist, told the BBC she hoped for a “quick resolution” to the case.
“As the CPS have decided to prosecute, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage. Obviously I hope for a quick resolution of the case,” she said.
“In the meantime I will be taking a little time off over the next few days to be with my family.”
In his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Huhne said he was standing down “with much regret”.
“I intend to mount a robust defence against the charges brought against me, and I have concluded that it would be distracting both to that effort and to my official duties if I were to continue in office,” he wrote.
In reply, Mr Cameron praised his work as Energy and Climate Change Secretary, as well as his role in the negotiating the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats following the inconclusive 2010 election.
“I believe you have made the right decision under the circumstances,” wrote the Prime Minister.
“You have made a very significant contribution to the Government, of which you can be justly proud...
“Like the Deputy Prime Minister, I am sorry to see you leave the Government under these circumstances and wish you well for the future.”
In his letter, Mr Clegg told his former leadership rival he was “immensely grateful” for his “trailblazing” work in government.
The Deputy Prime Minister added: “I fully understand your decision to stand down from government in order to clear your name, but I hope you will be able to do so rapidly so that you can return to play a key role in government as soon as possible.”
The events which led to today’s charges date back almost a decade to March 2003, when Mr Huhne’s car was allegedly caught by a speed camera on the motorway between Stansted Airport in Essex and London.
But allegations of impropriety did not emerge until after the MP’s 26-year marriage ended in 2010 as a result of his affair with PR adviser Carina Trimingham.
Ms Pryce told the Sunday Times last year that her ex-husband - then an MEP - had asked “someone” to take the penalty on his behalf to avoid losing his driving licence. It later emerged that the “someone” was her.
After the allegations surfaced, Mr Huhne said the claims were “simply incorrect” and had previously “been shown to be untrue”.
Both Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce were interviewed by Essex Police detectives before the case was handed to the Crown Prosecution Service, but the decision was delayed by a court battle to obtain key emails from the Sunday Times.
Announcing the decision to press charges, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said a criminal complaint was made to Essex Police last May, alleging that Ms Pryce had accepted responsibility for a speeding offence committed by Mr Huhne in 2003.
“That complaint was investigated by Essex Police and a file was passed to the CPS in late July 2011. The CPS advised that further investigations should be made, including obtaining certain material from a national newspaper,” he said.
“Those further investigations were made and, in October 2011, an order was made for the newspaper to produce material to the police.
“The newspaper appealed that order, as it was entitled to do, but subsequently consented to producing the material in question just before the appeal was due to be heard, on January 20 this year.
“All the available evidence, including the new material, has now been carefully considered by the CPS and we have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce for perverting the course of justice.
“The essence of the charges is that, between March and May 2003, Mr Huhne, having allegedly committed a speeding offence, falsely informed the investigating authorities that Ms Pryce had been the driver of the vehicle in question, and she falsely accepted that she was the driver.
“Accordingly, summonses against both Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce have been obtained from Westminster Magistrates’ Court and those summonses will now be served on them. They are due to appear in court on February 16 this year.”