Fiona Harvey Cancun – Huhne dodges one fight to chair another

There was a minor controversy at the Cancun talks on Wednesday when the question of whether Chris Huhne, the UK energy and environment secretary, would have to return to London came up.

The problem was over the crunch vote on higher education tuition fees. With several Lib Dems threatening to rebel against the leadership on the issue, there was a real chance Huhne would be recalled to cast his vote.

That would have been gravely disruptive, because Huhne is, with his Brazilian counterpart Isabella Teixera, co-chair of a vital working group – the group with the task of forging a compromise on the future of the Kyoto protocol, one of the most contentious issues at the talks.

At the 11th hour, however, Huhne won a reprieve from London. He will stay at the Cancun conference to the end.

Given the heated nature of the Kyoto debate, however, he may yet end up wishing he could return to the UK, where even recalcitrant colleagues and protesting students would make easier opponents than the wrathful developing countries here who feel betrayed by the rich world and are making their views known.

UPDATE – Here is Huhne’s statement on his decision:

Nick Clegg and I have decided the importance of the talks in Cancun mean that I have to stay here to finish the vital work we have started.

It is hugely regrettable that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party has decided to put short-term political point scoring ahead of the long-term interests of the planet. They are putting the next two days ahead of the next two generations.

These vital talks have denied me the chance to support the coalition government’s progressive proposals to give financial security to our world class universities sector and make the repayment system for students fairer.

Would it be entirely cynical to point out that these vital talks have also denied him the opportunity to make himself as unpopular as the rest of his Lib Dem cabinet colleagues? And might even have boosted his chances of becoming the next Lib Dem leader?

In Huhne’s defence, though, he has at least made clear his support of the unpopular policy, which he didn’t necessarily have to do.