The former British energy minister Chris Huhne, along with his ex-wife, the economist Vicky Pryce, has been sent to jail.
What was Huhne’s crime? Ten years ago Huhne was caught by the speed cameras driving at 69 mph in an area where the speed limit was 50 mph. He would have had 3 points docked from his driving license had he accepted the penalty. Except that he didn’t. He claimed that it wasn’t he but his (then) wife Vicky Pryce who was behind the wheels when his car was caught on the cameras exceeding the speed limit. Pryce accepted: yes she was the one who broke the speed limit. She had the points docked from her driving license. She then got on with her career of doling out sound economic advice to industries and companies for fees which were slightly more than the annual budget of a small African country, while Huhne carried on with his political career, which saw him installed as the energy minister in the coalition government in 2010, allowing him to pursue his lifelong obsession of ruining Britain’s countryside, by erecting pointless wind turbines, to its logical conclusion.
So far so good (or bad), one might say. If only it were as simple as that.
Chris Huhne, a Liberal Democrat MP, was, on two occasions, a serious contender for the leadership of the party, and almost won; he gave its current leader, the feckless Nick Clegg, a good run for his money. (In light of what happened subsequently, the Lib Dem supporters, the few that are left, must have heaved a collective sigh of relief that he didn’t).
At the time of his leadership bid for the Lib Dems, in 2007, Huhne was assisted by a woman named Carina Trimingham. Trimingham, more than 10 years younger than Huhne (but no spring chicken, I should add), was also a Lib Dem activist. After Huhne’s failed bid to become the leader of the Lib Dems, he and Trimingham started having an affair. (I need not add that the affair was a secret one; that’s the whole point of sexual affairs; it is de rigueur that they are secret; the unsuspecting partners and spouses must be kept in blissful ignorance for as long as possible.) To add a bit more spice to what is already promising to be a vindaloo, I should mention that when Huhne had Trimingham swooning (one assumes it was his unimprovable charisma, and not his breath) Trimingham was, for all outward appearances, a person of homoerotic orientation, according to subsequent newspaper reports. She was apparently living with and was in a civil partnership with another woman. Huhne, drawn, one supposes, to Trimingham’s womanly charms, and Trimingham, curious, one supposes, to find out how the other side bats, devoured each other, one imagines, with the same relish one’s ex-girlfriend reserved for smoked oysters on toast. Huhne’s Greece-born wife, the celebrated economist, who was once described by Huhne (with the reverence befitting a missionary wife describing her husband’s evangelical work in North Africa) as a very intelligent woman who earned considerably more than him, remained unaware (allegedly) of what her husband of 25 years was getting up to and (if you can imagine it without feeling queasy) in to. One assumes that Trimingham’s civil partner (a woman named Julia Bennett whom Trimingham married the same year she and Huhne started seeing a lot of each other) was similarly unaware.
During the May 2010 general election, in which he held on to his seat in Hampshire, Huhne presented himself as a happily married man; leaflets were distributed depicting him and Pryce as a happy husband and wife. (He might not have been lying; he was married, and was, no doubt, very happy, happier than a cat that was enjoying two saucers of milk). One wonders how long this state of affair would have continued had not Huhne been secretly photographed, within a month of his election victory, by a scumbag investigator working for a scumbag British tabloid, in his constituency home with a woman—who stayed the whole night in the house, it was further alleged; the night, it would be safe to assume, they didn’t spend playing cards)—who was not his wife. Who was the mystery woman? Trimingham, of course. It was all out now. Huhne then announced that yes he had fallen in love with Trimingham, and yes he had decided to leave his wife (of vastly superior intelligence and wealth).
Within months of Huhne’s marital desertion the news appeared of the speeding offence in 2003. Who alerted the newspapers of what any person with a modicum of sense would be forced to accept was a minor peccadillo? It most certainly wasn’t Huhne, and it wasn’t Trimingham. Yes, you guessed it correctly; it was Pryce, who, it would be fair to assume, was more furious with Huhne than Manchester United football fans I watched sometime ago in a Champion League match after their team lost to Real Madrid and they decided that the referee was to be blamed. The scene was set: the jilted wife wanting to see her philandering husband quartered or, if that was not possible, whup his hide so hard for months he wouldn’t be able to sit in the cushiest of armchairs without wincing, or, if even this very reasonable wish was not going to be met because of some namby-pamby concerns about ours being a civilized country, then drag his name through the mud, ruin his reputation and political career; despicable journalists utterly untroubled by even a flicker of conscience and interested only in getting salacious stories that would swell up the sales of their rags, who egged her on, giving her, in the process, one imagines the false assurance that while Huhne would be finis by her killer blow, she would be able to garner, even bask in, the sympathy only due to a wronged wife; and interfering busybodies holding, for reasons best known only to them, a grudge against Huhne and wishing to see him finished, who incited the jilted wife (already madder than a roomful of hatters) further.
The newspaper reports claimed that on the night in question in 2003, when Huhne’s car was caught on the speed camera Pryce was attending a charity dinner in London on the night in question. Which meant that, unless she was Harry Houdini or had managed the trick Indian tantrics spend their whole lives trying to master, which would allow them to be at two different places at the same time, she could not have been the driver of the car. The clever British police wasted no time in figuring out that something rum was going on here. It was obviously a matter great importance, which required spending tax-payers’ money: did Huhne pass the points on his driving license to Pryce, or did he not? The Police investigations were opened. Huhne strenuously denied the disgusting allegations. He was severely disappointed when the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided that there was a reasonable chance of getting a conviction, and declared that he intended to defend himself most rigorously. Huhne protested his innocence in the strongest possible manner. He protested his innocence all the way to the first day of his trial. He then pleaded guilty and declared that he considered it his responsibility to accept the responsibility (so a double responsibility) of something that happened so many years ago. He then resigned his position as the Member of Parliament (MP), having already quit the government when he was charged by the CPS. He announced that he was quitting politics altogether (a sensible decision, one had to agree, in the circumstances).
Huhne was toast. His political career lay in tatters; his reputation was destroyed; and he was exposed, as a liar, to public pillory. Mission accomplished. Pryce could open a champagne bottle. She had got her wish; Huhne was finished; he was not just history, he was chemistry and biology. Revenge is a dish, as the relatives of the unfortunate victims of the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin would regretfully confirm, is best served cold. Not so fast. The bloody police and CPS charged the eminent economist as well, along with her unfaithful ex-husband. She was, the police charged, an accomplice in this wilful, premeditated crime. Huhne and Pryce plotted and planned and perpetrated this heinous crime together. Like Huhne, Pryce protested her innocence, but, unlike Huhne, she did not have a change of heart. What was her defence? Seeing as it was she who revealed that she took the points for Huhne even though she was not in the car, she had to accept her role. She fell back on the archaic legal clause of marital coercion. Pryce, the poor, vulnerable woman, lacking in self-confidence (who also happened to be a renowned economist) was, we were invited to believe, forced by the tyrannical and dictatorial Huhne into taking the points. In the process a lot of dirty linen was washed in public and things that ought to have remained private were revealed in court in a manner that can only be described as deeply embarrassing. None of it worked. The jury didn’t believe a word of it and concluded that Pryce had had a choice in the matter and she chose—and was not coerced by Huhne—to take the points. She was guilty. At the time of sentencing Huhne, who was not called upon to give evidence in his ex-wife’s trial, made it very clear, via his lawyers, that he did not pressurise Pryce into taking the points. But can the man, who lied persistently for two years, be believed? Why would anyone think that he was not lying now? But then, the other party, Vicky Pryce, too, had not been believed—her version of events was rejected by the jury; in other words, she, too, was considered to have lied in this matter. They were both liars, more untrustworthy than Tony Blair. Now one would never know what really happened in 2003 between Pryce and Huhne, which resulted in Pryce agreeing to take the points for Huhne; however, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that at the time of the speeding offence, in 2003, Huhne and Pryce were happily married, and, Pryce willingly took the points for Huhne. Seven years later, when Huhne left her for a younger (though not necessarily prettier) woman, driven by a desire to seek vengeance and wreak havoc in Huhne’s life and career, she brought up this relatively minor incident from the past (though technically and in the eyes of the law an offence). Either she did not take into consideration that she stood a grave risk of having her reputation ruined in all this, which, if correct, would suggest a gross error of judgment on her part; or, she did take this possibility into consideration, but, driven by the desire to see her ex-husband ruined, she did not care if she was ruined with him, which, if true, would suggest (again) a gross error of judgment.
In the Southwark crown court, where Pryce’s trial was conducted and where both Huhne and Pryce stood together (probably for the last time) in the dock as they were handed down jail sentences, the judge, justice Mr Sweeney, was at his orotund best as he passed his judgment (he is a judge, after all; it is his job to pass judgments). He told the pair, “To the extent that anything good has come out of this whole process, it is that now, finally, you have both been brought to justice for your joint offence.” Pryce was described as “manipulative, controlling and devious”. How did the good judge come to these sweeping conclusions? I am not saying that Pryce does not possess any of these attributes. She may well be in possession of some or more or all of these attributes, and in abundance. The point is how on earth did the good judge come to this firm conclusion about her character, based on her conduct during an episode of her life, which, whatever else one might say about her, would have to be described as, traumatic? What does it say about his judgment?
What about the sentences? Both Huhne and Pryce have gone down for eight months each (they will be out, all other things being equal, after serving a quarter of their sentences). Justice Sweeney described their misconduct as “most serious and flagrant offence”. Really? Switching points so that your partner or spouse does not lose license? A survey carried out by one of the major insurance companies in Britain showed that more than 10 million people said they would do it if it meant that their partners did not lose their licenses. Another survey carried out by AA suggested that more than half a million people may have already done it. Justice Sweeney will be shocked to learn that almost one sixth of this country’s citizens would not bat an eyelid before carrying out a “most serious and flagrant offence”. What about the half a million who admitted in the anonymous survey that they had already carried out this criminal act and had escaped the long hand of the law because of their partners or spouses whom justice Sweeney would have no trouble in describing “controlling, manipulative and devious” (which would suggest that Britain has become a nation of criminals and psychopaths, wilfully breaking speed-limits and lying about it afterwards).
The jail sentences handed out to Huhne and Pryce seem extraordinarily harsh. (I was therefore astonished to read in the papers that a Conservative Party MP—who else?—has written to the Attorney General complaining that the jail sentences were too lenient and demanding a review.) Huhne and Pryce are not career criminals and it is difficult to see why it was felt necessary to incarcerate them in prison for several months in order to deter them from switching points again in future. A friend of mine argued that the jail sentences were justified because Huhne held a public office and was therefore rightly expected to adhere to a higher standards of conduct, and, when he fell short of that, was dealt, rightly, more harshly than say, a habitual career criminal whose list of crimes is longer than M1 and who does not let anything come in the way of his recidivist tendencies. I find such arguments puzzling. Surely, sentences handed out should reflect the severity of crime and not the societal position of the person who has carried out the crime.
The sensible thing to do, in this case, would have been to impose fines on Huhne and Pryce and revoke their licenses.
The only sentence from the incredibly sententious justice Sweeney that rang true was when he told Huhne and Pryce: “Any element of tragedy is entirely your own fault.”