The big news out of the U.K. today is that Chris Huhne, once one of the most senior people in British government and tapped to be leader of the Liberal Democrats, and his estranged ex-wife Vicky Pryce, have each been sentenced to 8 months in prison for “perverting the course of justice.”
It’s a remarkable coda to a story that has dragged on for years, and began with a simple crime, when in 2003 Huhne was a European Member of Parliament and was caught speeding between London and Stansted Airport, and ending after a brief interlude that saw a trial thrown out due to a stunningly incompetent jury.
Huhne’s big offence wasn’t really the speeding, but lying about it.
When contacted by the police shortly after the offence, he coerced his wife into taking the “points” on her licence in order to avoid being banned himself (he was banned for a later driving offence anyway).
Perhaps that would have been that, but then in 2009, the News of the World (the Rupert Murdoch tabloid newspaper that was later shut down after the phone hacking scandal) caught a whiff of reports of a different scandal — Huhne was having an affair.
Neville Thurbeck, the reporter who first made this discovery has written a blog post today that outlines his links to the story. It’s a fascinating account, which hints at the sort of skulduggery a British tabloid journalist is expected to get up to — including staking out houses and tailing the mistress in a car.
While the story was initially spiked, as Huhne wasn’t important enough, in May 2010 he was promoted to Energy Secretary in the U.K.’s new coalition government. Suddenly, he was one of the most important politicians in the country, and the story was back on.
The following Sunday, the story ran on the front page of the News of the World. Huhne strolled into his Clapham home and told his wife Vicky [Pryce] their 26 year marriage was over and walked calmly off to the gym.
Distraught and confused and still in love with her husband, she set about plotting her revenge and reveal how Huhne had organised for her to take three speeding points on his behalf to escape a driving ban.
Pryce would get her revenge, though it would also backfire. In an article published on Sunday, Isabel Oakeshott, the politics editor at Murdoch’s Sunday Times, describes how it was a few months later that she met Pryce.
I first met Vicky in the security tent at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Liverpool in September 2010. I was standing in the queue, waiting to go through the x-ray machines, when she arrived with a mutual friend who introduced us. I smiled and said hello.
“You know who I am, don’t you?” she asked anxiously.
Oakeshott and Pryce began socializing, and — from Oakeshott’s account — it seems clear Pryce’s plan for revenge was beginning. Oakeshott recounts a conversation from 2011:
“He can’t be leader [of the Liberal Democrats],” she said. “He shouldn’t even be in the cabinet. People should know what he’s really like.” So there it was: she wanted to bring him down. I made sure I had understood her correctly.
“You want to stop him?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
I didn’t see how. His finances were squeaky clean. She didn’t seem to have anything else up her sleeve.
“Yes I do,” she said. She leaned across the table. “I took his points.”
In Oakeshott’s account of the story, she goes on to explain the legal wranglings over the case — she says she didn’t want Pryce to have to face the legal consequences of lying to the police. They even attempted to covertly record Huhne admitting to it, but Huhne, no doubt aware of the phone hacking scandal occurring all around him, was evasive.
Finally, the story came out on May 9, 2011, under the headline “Top minister quizzed over
driving ban.” In the story Pryce was quoted as saying that he had convinced “someone close to him” to accept his speeding points — Pryce herself wasn’t named. Another article based on interviews with Pryce appeared on the same day titled “Huhne, my ruthless husband”.
According to Oakeshott, Pryce wasn’t happy with the stories, and the pair stopped talking. Pryce instead began talking to the Daily Mail. Soon a police investigation into the crime was opened, and Oakeshott was legally forced to hand over her correspondence with Pryce, implicating her source in the crime of perverting the course of justice.
That Oakeshott actually gave over the emails — which can now be read freely online — is seen as duplicitous by many in the British media world.
The Guardian’s Peter Preston wrote yesterday “Isabel Oakeshott was Vicky Pryce’s firm friend … or at least until the great revenge story got in the way.” Nick Cohen has written an article for the Spectator that includes the damning passage:
Journalists once went to prison rather than reveal a source. Now they can’t even go to an appeal court. Instead, Oakeshott’s source is in jail. I asked friends of Pryce to ask her on my behalf if the Sunday Times had sought her permission before it gave detectives what they needed to turn her into ‘a broken woman’.
‘No, it did not,’ came the reply.
In Oakeshott’s defence, she claims she did not think the case would go to trail, or at least she did not think that Pryce would also be charged with perverting the course of justice.
However, in February 2012 it was announced that Pryce would indeed face charges. Pryce tried to claim a defence of “marital coercion.”
Reading the judge’s statement today, it’s hard not to feel that Oakeshott’s article, and the release of her correspondence with Pryce, played a key role in getting Pryce jail time. He said that Huhne was “somewhat – but not greatly, in my view – more culpable” in the crime, before turning to Pryce’s treatment of the press:
[It] was that over the period of six months from November 2010 to May 2011 you, I have no doubt, sought to manipulate and control the Press so as to achieve that dual objective, hoping all the while to be able to hide behind their duty of source confidentiality, which you tried long and hard to do, as well as laying the ground, if that failed, for a false defence of marital coercion. …
Once charged, you Vicky Pryce pursued your false defence of marital coercion. In doing so, just as you did in your dealings with the media, you have demonstrated that there is a controlling manipulative and devious side to your nature. However, ultimately, the good sense of the jury saw through you, and you were convicted.
In hindsight, it’s incredible that the story started out so mundane — if Huhne had pleaded guilty in 2003 he would have been fined $100 and banned from driving for six months, The New York Times notes.
However, thanks to Huhne’s infidelity, his wife’s thirst for vengeance, and a lust for scandal amongst Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers, the mundane speeding story turned into something else — the epic downfall of one of Britain’s golden couples.
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