Chris Huhne resigned as U.K. energy secretary after becoming the first serving Cabinet minister to be charged with a serious criminal offense in modern times.
Prosecutors have “sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges” against Huhne and his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, of perverting the course of justice, the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said in a televised statement in London today. The charges were laid after Pryce accused Huhne of lying about a speeding ticket nine years ago.
The decision to prosecute is “deeply regrettable,” Huhne, 57, told reporters in London less than an hour after Starmer’s announcement. “I’m innocent of these charges, I intend to fight this in the courts. So as to avoid any distraction to either my official duties or my trial defense, I’m standing down and resigning as energy secretary.”
Prime Minister David Cameron promoted Business Minister Ed Davey to replace Huhne, ensuring that there will continue to be five members from the Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet. Another Lib Dem, Norman Lamb, moved to take Davey’s job.
Political historians said today’s events were unprecedented.
‘Jail If Convicted’
“I can’t think of a comparable case in British politics where a Cabinet minister is charged by the police for an offense for which they potentially face jail if convicted,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University, said in a telephone interview.
David Butler, a fellow of Nuffield College at Oxford University and the author of “British Political Facts,” said he couldn’t think of a case like it “at least since 1900.”
Huhne is the third Cabinet minister to resign from Cameron’s government since it was formed in May 2010. The second, Conservative Defense Secretary Liam Fox, quit in October over his relationship with a friend and self-styled adviser, Adam Werritty.
“The essence of the charges is that between March and May 2003, Mr. Huhne, having allegedly committed a speeding offense, 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,” Starmer said.
The former energy secretary said he will continue to serve as a member of Parliament. He and his ex-wife will appear in court on Feb. 16.
After taking office in May 2010, Huhne put aside his long-standing opposition to nuclear power and promoted a new generation of atomic plants to be built by utilities led by Electricite de France SA. He also backed subsidies for renewable energy, though he spent much of the past year reining in support for solar power. Huhne won praise from the renewable-energy lobby today for his performance.
“Whatever the terms of his departure, few can deny that Chris Huhne has really shaken up the energy debate over the last two years,” Good Energy Group Plc Chief Executive Officer Juliet Davenport said in an e-mailed statement. “It is vital that his replacement keeps up the momentum behind energy reforms.”
EDF, in partnership with Centrica Plc, is one of six utilities planning to build atomic stations in Britain. The others are Germany’s RWE AG and EON AG, Iberdrola SA of Spain, and GDF Suez SA of France. Plans were given a boost by the government’s introduction of a carbon floor price, which acts as a tax on carbon emitted through power generation from coal and gas, benefitting nuclear and renewables.
Huhne also pushed development of offshore wind farms. In July, the Department of Energy and Climate Change targeted a five-fold increase in wind power to 31 gigawatts by 2020.
Huhne also pushed through an energy bill last year laying out what he called his “Green Deal,” measures that will allow homes and businesses to install insulation, recouping costs through savings on their heating bills.
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace U.K., said in an e-mailed statement that Huhne was “a vocal advocate for the green agenda in a government whose green credentials are looking more than a little tarnished.”
Huhne also sped up a mandate for installing smart meters that provide consumers and utilities real-time data about power consumption. The government intends to have 53 million meters in place at homes and businesses by 2020.
Huhne’s successor will have to oversee sweeping changes to the electricity market due in an energy bill the department aims to enact by early 2013. The measures would guarantee long-term prices for nuclear and renewable power and introduce payments to generators acting as back-up suppliers for periods when wind supplies drop.
A key aim of the Energy Department under Huhne has also been to extend competition for power supply beyond the so-called “Big Six” suppliers: EON, RWE’s Npower unit, EDF, SSE Plc, Centrica and Iberdrola’s Scottish Power division, by making the electricity market more transparent.
Huhne also pushed through a target to cut in half the U.K.’s greenhouse-gas output from 1990 levels by 2027, while pushing for the 27-nation European Union to adopt a goal of reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2020. He set up a so-called Green Bank that aims to spur renewable-energy projects.
Huhne left Pryce, a senior managing director at FTI Consulting Inc., in June 2010 for a former aide, Carina Trimingham. He has twice bid to become leader of the Liberal Democrats, coming second in battles in 2006 and again in 2007. In the second contest, Huhne lost to Clegg by 511 votes out of the 41,465 cast by party members.
Davey, 46, is a former management consultant with Omega Partners whose expertise on postal services came in useful when he was appointed to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with responsibility for Royal Mail Group Ltd. He has been in Parliament since 1997, winning a seat in southwest London by just 56 votes. In 2001, he turned that into one of the safest Liberal Democrat districts in the country, winning 60 percent of the vote.
“Ed Davey has previously stated the importance of immediate action on climate change,” David Symons, a director at WSP Environment & Energy in London, said in an e-mailed statement. “These beliefs, coupled with his experience in BIS on consumer choice, bode well for DECC’s key policies, such as Green Deal.”