Thursday, 7 March 2013

Vicky Pryce conviction: why this is not about politics

Today Chris Huhne's former wife, Vicky Pryce, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice by accepting his speeding points ten years ago.  Apart from the sentencing of both Huhne and Pryce, this verdict  brings to a close a saga that is both sad and embarrassing - but also immensely personal in nature rather than political.

That is not to say there have not been political ramifications - far from it.  The inescapable reality is that this pitifully unnecessary situation has provided a significant stepback for our party, culminating as it did in the loss of a cabinet minister and one of the most articulate advocates of environmentalism within the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, it underlined the hard truth that - far from being a party above such dishonesty - we have rapidly become a party closely associated with it.  A narrow victory in a hard-fought by-election provided some relief, but doesn't obscure the fact that it was a close run thing and that a potentially devastating result (and all that it would mean for the party) would have been a by-product of some rather trivial matter, blown out of proportion by the status of the accused and the apparent determination of his former wife to destroy his career.

Proportion is not a word that has been used much in relation to this case.  Indeed, the potential punishments to me handed to Huhne and Pryce may be distinctly disproportionate to the initial offences.  Certainly, Huhne can have few excuses - and certainly not for the continued lying prior to his sudden and dramatic admission.  His reputation lies in tatters, and rightly so.  As for Pryce, her defence never quite sat comfortably with me.  It seemed too contrived, her actions and timing too deliberate, too calculating.  The claims of coercion didn't fit what I knew of her, although that itself doesn't render the claims untrue.  What did seem odd was the intellectual incompatibility of her argument: she failed to recognise that if she could ever honestly claim that she was being directed by others into taking courses of action that would prove destructive that time was now.  The e-mails, now public, between herself and Isobel Oakeshott, political editor of the Sunday Times, show a willingness to be heavily influenced by others without due consideration of the potential ramifications.

It has been commented on that Pryce did very little for the cause of equality by adopting such a defence.  That is an apt point, but it must also be recognised that in many relationships roles are far from equal. It may well be true that Pryce did feel coerced (whether someone feels such does not necessarily confirm that active coercion was being applied by another) or that Huhne was an emotional bully.  But what is also evident, especially in the aforementioned e-mails, is a determination on the part of Pryce to effect revenge on her ex-husband.  And revenge is never pretty, but always looks so much worse when it involves politics and the national press.

This is a particularly tragic case in which there are no winners.  While this matter has affected the way I, and many others, view Chris Huhne, I cannot help but feel that he has been the victim of not only his own stupidity and pride but the deliberate schemes of others, which may include Isabel Oakeshott herself. (Certainly, if Pryce is guilty of perverting the course of justice, there is a case for that to be extended to Oakeshott also).  Here are two enormously talented people whose professional and personal lives have been ruined due to their combined self-destructive behaviours.  It has been an undignfied affair, and particualrly galling to watch as two individuals for whom I previously had enormous respect played out their difficulties in the public eye. Not only have their actions destroyed themselves, and in Huhne's case damaged the Liberal Democrats (in the short-term at least), they have had significant effects on the couple's children.  That latter point is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.

There is much in this that might, in its own way, be interesting.  Some feminists, for example, have been taking radically different views of Pryce's position and defence, sometimes changing their attitudes as events developed.  As a study in the psychology of deception or the effects of resentment on the human psyche, this must be something of a classic case study.  However, in other ways - as Jonathan Fryer observed on twitter - this is a Greek tragedy.

The Guardian has been quick to make political points, asking questions of what Nick Clegg and Vince Cable knew and suggesting that other Lib Dems - notably Lord Oakeshott (Isabel's third cousin) - were somehow involved.  That people close to Huhne and his family were sources of support should not be unsurprising, just as it should be equally unsurprising that they should allow justice to run its course without political interference.  There is no question of any senior Liberal Democrats being aware of this prior to Pryce's decision to make the information public.

As for accusations of a "cover up" on the part of senior Liberal Democrats - that accusation is plainly ludicrous.  Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield and a prolific (and admittedly entertaining) tweeter, decided to make his views known. While he admitted to "feel[ing] sorry for Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne facing a likely prison sentence" he also asked "if there was a conspiracy of silence at top of the Lib-Dem Party re Huhne, will the CPS regard THAT as perverting the course of justice?"  This is a quite ridiculous question based on an equally absurd idea there was a cover-up at all.  I asked Fabricant "So when Huhne's aggrieved ex made them aware of it, what should they have done?", to which he responded "Fair question. Not easy, I know......"  In that case, why suggest there has been some deliberate concealment of truth?

If Pryce had spoken to Clegg, Cable, Oakeshott and others, what does that prove - other than they presumably knew nothing beforehand?  And what should anyone do when the aggrieved ex-partner of a respected colleagues makes sudden accusations about incidents that happened a decade previously? Take them at face value and sack/suspend the colleague? Go directly to the police? Or listen carefully, provide support where necessary and allow the truth to come out, even if that meant a potentially fateful prosecution case against a Cabinet minister?  The problem for Clegg, in the aftermath of the Rennard accusations, is that there are those who want to believe him as responsible for a "cover-up", and this gives the lie unmerited power.

In any case, this is not about politics.  It is a family tragedy, played out against a very public backdrop, but one in which the disintegration of a once intimate family unit becomes plain to see - along with the even greater human costs of resentment and vengeance. It is all terribly sad, and regrettably nothing positive comes out of it.

I don't see any reason for people to make political points about Vicky Pryce's conviction. All I see is lives ruined unnecessarily - something perhaps the media could consider when the sentences are announced.

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