By Ian Dunt
Chris Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice today, in a move which will have catastrophic repercussions for the Liberal Democrats and him personally.
The former climate change secretary and leadership hopeful entered the plea alongside his ex-wife Vicky Price at London's Southwark crown court this morning.
They were charged over allegations Huhne persuaded Pryce to take his penalty points after he was caught by a speed camera between Stansted airport and London in 2003.
The allegations of wrongdoing were not made public until 2011, when Huhne's marriage ended following an affair with his press agent, Carina Trimingham.
Perverting the course of justice can result in a jail sentence of between four and 36 months, but on average sentences are around the ten month mark.
Any sentence over 12 months means Huhne must resign by law and would therefore trigger a by-election. But even if the sentence is below that level, the Lib Dem MP's political career is almost certainly over.
The Lib Dem majority in Eastleigh is 3,864, but with the coalition seen as increasingly toxic and Huhne's court case top of voters' minds, the party is likely to face a bloodbath in the Hampshire seat.
The Conservatives, who won 21,102 votes in 2010, covertly ramped up their campaign in the seat recently, but the more serious threat could come from Ukip.
Leader Nigel Farage could well be tempted to make a run for the seat, with the euroseptic party relying on their stronger showing between general elections to aim for a major electoral upset.
The party secured 1,933 votes in Eastleigh in 2010.
If the Lib Dems lose Eastleigh, it will mark the end of their 'golden triangle' in the south, together with Winchester and Romsey.
The triangle was a sign of the party's progress in southern, typically Tory seats, but both other seats went to the Tories in 2010.
The guilty plea also raises questions about Nick Clegg's judgement.
The two men were never seen as close, after a hard fought leadership contest saw Huhne's camp dub his opponent 'Calamity Clegg'.
But the party leader came to value his colleague in government as one of the few Lib Dems ready to stand up to Tories around the Cabinet table – particularly during the AV referendum campaign.
When Huhne stepped down from Cabinet, Clegg went out of his way to prepare the ground for a return.
"I have made it clear to him I would like to see him back in government in a key position," he said.
Huhne was granted unconditional bail.
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By Ian Dunt
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