Yesterday, this man was sentenced to eight months in prison for perverting the course of justice. He is Chris Huhne, one-time Liberal Democrat MEP, MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government and something of a “star” of the party. (He ran Nick Clegg pretty close in the leadership battle in 2007, and, if you included postal ballots, which they didn’t, he would have won.) I think we’re all well aware of his crime: after being caught speeding in 2003, when he was a Member of the European Parliament, he convinced his then-wife, Vicky Pryce, also convicted yesterday, to “take” his points by claiming she was driving when the vehicle was photographed by a speed camera. (Ironically, he was banned from driving for three months in the same year for driving while using a mobile phone and she had to “drive him around”, the very inconvenience their deception was designed to prevent.)
Huhne, who pled “guilty” at the last minute, and Pryce, who pled “not guilty”, both received the same sentence. As we speak, they are being “processed” at Wandsworth Prison, which nobody says is going to be a lot of fun for either of them, but will then be moved to open prisons for something like six weeks, after which they will be released, but put on house arrest for the remainder of their sentence. He is no longer an MP, but, after legal costs, he will still own seven properties, and certainly went into prison with a fortune of around £3.5 million, much of that earned when he worked in the City, before entering politics. (When he was the Lib Dems’ environment spokesman, he was criticised for having shares in “unethical” companies.)
For better or for worse, I have a kneejerk reaction against the following types of people:
- MPs and other elected representatives of either gender who lie
- Men who abuse power (and it is so often men)
- Men who leave their spouses and their families for a younger woman (essentially because it’s such a cliché, especially if the affair is conducted “at the office” – what is this, a 1970s sitcom?)
- Male politicians who give the impression of being a “family man” in order to get elected – as Huhne did in Eastleigh with the family snapshots in election material (“Family matters to me so much – where would we be without them?”) and his public displays of unity at the ballot box with Pryce – when they are in fact conducting an affair in secret and plan on leaving their wife and children when they get in
Here’s where I stand:
I do not think putting Huhne, or Pryce, in prison, even for a couple of months, is a good use of taxpayer money. I stated this on Twitter and, as usual, enraged some who felt I was letting him off the hook. I mentioned “his sort” (which is kind of all of the above), which was misconstrued as “posh/rich/establishment” and taken to mean that this “sort” are “too good for prison”. Far from it. If I really thought that the £800 per week we’ll be paying to keep Huhne in an open prison would change him, I’d consider it. But to my mind – and this is a pure hypothetical as the sentence has been passed – community service would be a far better option. It would cost us less. It would – shall we say – inconvenience Huhne more. And it would put something back into the society he clearly felt he was above.
I state these facts only because, as usual, I felt I was struggling to make my views heard in the ridiculous medium of Twitter. I do not believe that the purpose of community service is “humiliation”. Although I do believe that picking up litter or washing police cars would be humiliating for an arrogant prick like Huhne. (I have never met him, but I know a lot more about him after the court case than I ever expected to know, and I don’t much like the sound of him. Do you?)
Had I been on the jury, I feel in my bones that I would have been less harsh on Pryce. She is, on paper and in a court of law, as guilty as him for the misappropriation of those speeding points, but it certainly sounded like she was “maritally coerced,” which was her defence. A couple of weeks fewer in prison, at least? She is anything but “the little wife”, and she certainly put all of this into motion by going to the press after she was dumped by Huhne, but she seemed at the time to me to be the injured party. It’s hard to know for sure, but that’s the impression I took away from what remains a sordid affair.
Chris Huhne is now hated by his ex-wife, and, presumably, by the three kids he had with her during their 26 years of marriage. That’s their private business. I only care about him because he is an elected official who asked the electorate to trust him and to represent them. Call me a dreamer and an idealist, but I expect Members of Parliament to be honest and to set a good example. I do not give a toss whether or not they are happily married, or have families, those trappings of apparent trustworthiness are not as important to me as they are to many other voters; I merely expect them to do their best, to be upfront with those who elected them, to put their constituencies first, and not to behave as if it’s one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.
Much of my reaction to this story, which can go away now, is rooted in my own prejudice – and no doubt coloured by the disgust I feel for the Liberal Democrat party since they enabled the worst Tory government in history to take power, while abandoning all their promises – but I am being honest about that, and anyway, nobody elected me. Most people who drive have broken the speed limit. Many have points on their licence. Equally, for most people, a fine and a driving ban would be deterrent enough not to sail too close to the wind too often. When the offender is Chris Huhne, a man with a personal fortune and a property portfolio (two words that really shouldn’t go so casually together), a fine and a ban aren’t going to be enough. He needs to be made an example of, I agree, but sticking him in an open prison isn’t going to do the trick.
And we don’t put people in the stocks any more.