Huhne v Pryce: A fight to the last
- 7 March 2013
- From the section UK
It was the case that had it all - an uber-ambitious politician, his utterly brilliant economist wife, a lover chased by the tabloids and reputations trashed in full public view.
So much vitriol poured forth during the prosecution of former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce that it felt like a particularly grim episode of EastEnders - albeit with top barristers throwing the accusations on their clients' behalf.
In reality it was a simple and sad story of one speed camera, evading the consequences and revenge.
In 2003, Huhne was an ambitious MEP shuttling between his London home - shared with Vicky Pryce and their children - and the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
On 12 March he flew into Stansted Airport in Essex and broke the speed limit on the M11 motorway in his BMW.
Huhne had nine penalty points on his driving licence - and three more would have meant a ban. When the letter about the speeding offence came through the post, it was returned to Essex Police with Vicky Pryce named as the driver. She received the points.
Two years later, Huhne was the MP for Eastleigh, in Hampshire, and nobody would ever have had a clue about what had happened, had it not been for the disastrous end of their marriage.
In 2010 newspapers caught on to his affair with his PR adviser Carina Trimingham.
He returned to the family home in south London and, according to Vicky Pryce, told her about the relationship in a matter-of-fact way.
He said he needed 20 minutes to write a statement for the press saying they were separating.
When he revealed the other woman was someone his wife knew to be gay, Ms Pryce was stunned. Huhne left for the gym and warned his wife not to speak to the papers.
But the tabloids had a field day and Ms Trimingham ultimately brought an unsuccessful privacy action against the Daily Mail after it wrote about her bisexuality.
Grieving over the humiliating end of her long marriage, Vicky Pryce told the jury that she had descended into a "terrible state" and was "practically suicidal".
She took the fateful decision to go to the papers - the worst decision of her life.
She didn't work alone. She was helped by her neighbour, Constance Briscoe, a barrister and part-time judge. Ms Briscoe acted as an intermediary with a freelance journalist and the Mail on Sunday.
But Pryce ended up confiding in Sunday Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott whom, the court heard, had persuaded the economist that a carefully written story could expose the politician.
Pryce said in an email: "I definitely want to nail him. More than ever, I would love to do it soon."
Pryce recorded some of the phone calls with Huhne in an extraordinary and cringe-inducing attempt to lead him into incriminating himself. He never took the bait.
By May 2011, both newspapers had what they needed and the story hit the streets.
Huhne, now a cabinet minister, clung to office. But in February 2012 he had to quit when both he and Pryce were charged with perverting the course of justice.
He declared he would fight on and hired a formidable team of lawyers. Over the course of a year, Huhne mounted a daring series of legal challenges to have the prosecution thrown out - with a great deal of the attack focused on his by now former wife and her motivations.
During the legal argument, it emerged that the prosecution could not call Constance Briscoe to give evidence because detectives believed she may have lied to them about her contact with the Mail on Sunday.
Ms Briscoe was later arrested and suspended as a judge. She remains under investigation.
Mr Justice Sweeney, however, rejected Huhne's attempts to have the case dismissed. He said evidence needed to go before a jury, including painful texts between the former minister and his son, Peter.
"We all know that you were driving and you put pressure on Mum. Accept it or face the consequences. You've told me that was the case," texted Peter. "Or will this be another lie?"
"I have no intention of sending Mum to Holloway Prison for three months. Dad," came the reply.
"Are you going to accept your responsibility or do I have to contact the police and tell them what you told me?" his son responded.
"Discuss it with Mum," Huhne texted.
On 28 January, Huhne stood in the dock and said, clearly and loudly, that he was not guilty.
Sitting apart from him, separated by a seat and with her body turned slightly away, was Pryce. She had already pleaded not guilty on the basis of marital coercion. She neither looked at him or showed any emotion.
But in the week that followed, Huhne had second thoughts.
And so a year and a day after being first charged, Huhne stood up again and performed the legal equivalent of a screeching U-turn. He confessed to the crime, knowing full well that he now faced prison.
For a second week running, Pryce contained her emotions as the legal maelstrom swirled. Her chance to avoid the same fate would start the next day.
Pryce's case rested on the very unusual defence of marital coercion - that she had been forced to take the points.
And to make her case, she set about publicly destroying her ex-husband.
The only problem was the jury completely failed to understand their duties. They sent an unprecedented list of questions back to the judge, leading to their ridicule in the national media.
Mr Justice Sweeney concluded he had no choice but to run the entire trial again with a fresh panel.
Returning to the witness box for a second time, Vicky Pryce told the new jury the same tale - and emphasised the impact that Huhne's affair had on their family.
Some of their children had become "allergic" to the sight of their father and one even tried to jump out of a moving car when his voice had come on the radio.
They had argued furiously over the 2003 offence - but she had eventually crumbled because she had been presented with a "fait accompli."
"I found him standing by the hallway table with the form and pen in hand," she told the jury.
"He said 'This is ridiculous, you must sign this now'. He had filled in my name and he was, by implication, threatening our marriage.
"If I did not sign and return the form it would be an offence. If I said my husband had lied, that would have opened him to prosecution. If I signed, that way, in my view, preserved our marriage. [Otherwise] he would have blamed me for ever."
Just as she set out to destroy her former husband's reputation - the prosecution set about to destroy hers.
In the absence of actual independent evidence of who did what in 2003 - the case came down to whether or not the jurors believed Vicky Pryce - a woman who had been able to rely on the former head of MI6 and other top figures as character witnesses.
Pryce denied crafting a disastrous plan with newspapers - but she conceded under cross-examination during her second trial that she had been mostly motivated by revenge. She insisted that the real disaster had been her husband's affair.
In his closing speech for Vicky Pryce, Julian Knowles QC told the jury that she had been the victim of a perfect storm of incidents that led to her being forced into taking the points.
The couple - a genuine definition of a power-couple - were divided over an affair and the bitter recriminations that followed. Today they are united in very public misery.