Tom Aitken’s London Diary

‘A Tangled Web’ brings top UK politician closer to jail

By Tom Aitken in London 

‘Oh what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practise to deceive!’

So wrote Sir Walter Scott in 1808. And today the English multi-millionaire politician Chris Huhne, former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Coalition Cabinet, apparently lives in a such a world  — one in which you draw a line under anything troublesome and move on.

On one occasion, this took the form of telling his wife Vicky that he was leaving her, then going to the gym for a workout.

On the outer

Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne has not always moved on to places he necessarily wanted to be. Out of the Cabinet, out of his parliamentary seat, out of the affections of his children and out of public favour.

And next week he will probably move on into jail, while facing a legal bill of about half of one of his millions. All this arises from his gambler’s attempt to retain his driving licence.

Three weeks ago he faced a courtroom to protest his innocence of the criminal offence of perverting the course of justice by persuading (some have said bullying) his then wife, Vicky, a successful and powerful economist, to say that she was driving his car when a speed camera caught it exceeding the limit. (Otherwise penalty points on his licence would exceed the number which brings suspension for a year.)

The incident occurred in 2003.An MP in the European Parliament, Huhne was standing for election to the British one. Success would be imperilled if he suffered the shame and inconvenience of losing his licence.

The speed camera concerned netted more in 2003 than any other in the country.

Despite this, accidents there have risen rather than decreased, largely because the distance between the warning and the controlled zone requires an abrupt slowdown, itself fraught with danger.

Asked wife to take the rap

When Huhne received legal notice of his offence, he asked Victoria to say that she had been driving when the incident occurred.

That she eventually did so is not in dispute. (But he kept his licence only for the time being, losing it when, driving in central London, he used his mobile phone).

Perversely, instead of employing a chauffeur, he insisted that his wife drive him everywhere. Relations between them deteriorated until, true to form, he put himself on course for disaster.

One afternoon he informed Vicky that he was leaving her to marry his political aide, Carina Trimingham.

In order for this to happen, Carina would herself have to leave her civil partnership with another woman — then he went off to the gym for an hour’s workout!

One of Victoria’s daughters from a previous marriage gave evidence in court of Huhne’s hectoring campaign to get his way. He also alienated one of their two sons.

How the story came out

At this stage, no-one outside the family knew that Vicky had misinformed the police. But it appears that at some point that Victoria, inadvertently or otherwise, allowed a reporter to believe two things.

One, that she had said, under duress, that she had been driving the car at the crucial time, and secondly that she wanted to ‘nail him’ for what he had done to her.

In consequence, Chris and Vicky have spent much time in the last three weeks, sitting alongside each other in court, not looking at each other, charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Huhne himself surprised everyone by reversing his plea of ‘not guilty’ and was duly found guilty. Consequently, he resigned from the Cabinet and from his parliamentary seat at Eastleigh in Hampshire.

Facing jail

When the question of Victoria’s guilt or otherwise has been resolved, he will almost certainly go to jail.

Her defence is that she was subject to ‘marital coercion’.

The jury in her case debated the issue for two days, then sent the judge a list of questions they wanted answered before they could pronounce a verdict.

Admittedly some of these questions seemed curiously naïve when published. But the judge has made himself look pompous by saying in effect that some of the questions showed them to have no idea of basic principles of law. He dismissed the jury and the trial will start all over again next week.

The crux is this: There is little doubt that Victoria was coerced. Her daughter, giving evidence in court, was quite clear on that.

Huhne had nominated Victoria as the driver without her agreement, and when the form arrived from the police, bullied her into signing it.

One of the sons of the marriage told his father by text that he is an ‘autistic bastard.’

On the other hand: Victoria is a highly capable, strong-minded woman, used to exercising power, who nevertheless signed the document.

Since‘marital coercion’ is a defence available only to wives, it seems a meaningless hangover from a past age. The fact is that she signed. She could have refused.

We await a result.

Political fallout could be dire

More generally, the possible political results of these events could be surprisingly significant.

The Eastleigh bye-election to find Huhne’s replacement will take place next week.

On its result may depend: the survival or disintegration of the present coalition government; diminution to vanishing point of Lib-Dem public standing; humiliation of both parties by a win for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP); the possible inability of Parliament to assemble a coherent government with adequate popular support.

A Conservative victory would make Cameron look like a winner. Simultaneously it would strengthen and make noisier his troublesome right-wingers.

This is indeed ‘a tangled web’.