DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg hopes voters in the Eastleigh by-election will be able to look past the criminal behaviour which led to Chris Huhne's resignation and instead focus on the Liberal Democrats' policies and record.

Speaking yesterday Mr Clegg said he was shocked by disgraced ex-Cabinet minister Huhne's conduct, which resulted in him quitting as an MP after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice.

The Hampshire contest will see Mr Clegg's LibDems engage in a full-blooded fight with their Coalition partners, the Conservatives, who hope to regain a seat they lost in 1994.

Mr Clegg said Huhne's criminal conduct and the trial of his ex-wife Vicky Pryce would undeniably be an issue in the campaign, but voters would be able to separate the courtroom drama from the political issues.

He said: "I was very shocked and sad to see what happened and to see that his whole family has been engulfed in this in a very public way. I think you have to have a heart of stone not to think that is a pretty shocking and sad thing."

He added: "I don't actually think, at the end of the day, when people come to vote in Eastleigh on February 28, while they may have strong feelings one way or another about Chris Huhne, I've heard lots of people say they don't like what's happening in the court, but they actually think that what he did as a local MP was the model of a Liberal Democrat working hard for the local community."

Mike Thornton, a parish and borough councillor since 2007, will fight the seat for the LibDems. He will be up against Tory candidate Maria Hutchings, a staunch eurosceptic and opponent of David Cameron's gay-marriage reforms which have split the party. She previously stood against Huhne in 2010, losing by 3864 votes.