PERHAPS the greatest punishment for Vicky Pryce is that, after decades of striving to prove herself in a field dominated by men, having risen to the post of joint head of the UK government’s economic service, she will forever be remembered as the scorned and vengeful wife of a highly forgettable politician.
If so, it is nobody’s fault but her own. From the moment she set out to destroy the man who dumped her for his lover during a football match, she portrayed herself as a poor put-upon doormat of a partner, unable to exert her authority even over something as fundamental as breaking the law.
By arguing that her actions were driven not by pragmatism but by “marital coercion” – an outdated defence available only to wedded women – she effectively surrendered her right to all the respect her hard work had earned her. Worse than that, she undermined the equal rights’ agenda (by suggesting that even the strongest women are weak-willed when it comes to men) and made a mockery of the plight of those who, through physical, emotional or financial dependence, are genuinely vulnerable.
Of course, some might say we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors; that women who are capable and assertive in the workplace are often abused at home. But it quickly became clear during both her trials that – when it came to manipulation – Pryce could give Chris Huhne a run for his money. His decision to lie and lie again may have been deeply unedifying, but when the pressure was piled on, when the judge decided the heart-rending texts between him and his son would be allowed as evidence – he cracked and pleaded guilty. Pryce, on the other hand, maintained her innocence even after the first jury failed to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered. Is this the type of woman liable either to succumb to her husband’s entreaties or crumble under his pressure?
Nor was this a single moment of madness, an act committed in the heat of humiliation, such as cutting up your husband’s suits. This was a cynical plan cooked up and enacted over a prolonged period, a plan which relied on the connivance of others, including political reporter Isabel Oakeshott and judge Constance Briscoe. Far from being some malleable ingenue, Pryce was a control freak capable of bending those around her to her will and oblivious to the consequences for them or her. So consumed was she by the desire to destroy her husband, she didn’t care who else she brought down with him.
Despite all this, some commentators have expressed sympathy for Pryce. Here is a woman, they say, who, after her first marriage break-up, thought she had been given a second chance. When Huhne joined the Cabinet, she gave up her senior Whitehall post to avoid a conflict of interest. No wonder she was furious when, a few weeks later, it took just a split second for him to decide to throw her – the mother of his three children – over for party campaigner Carina Trimingham. Like many tragic Greek heroines, she was driven to the edge of sanity by this betrayal.
Meanwhile Margaret Cook – a hospital consultant, treated in much the same fashion as Pryce by her politician husband – suggested that even the most successful woman could find herself worn down by the sheer relentlessness of spousal ambition. Such was Robin’s belief that his needs took precedence, she said she once had to wrest the phone from his control to check up on urgent medical-test results.
This rings true up to a point. But though Cook describes how the balance of power shifted subtly in Robin’s favour over the course of their marriage, she won the battle of the phone.
In any case, when Pryce took on Huhne’s speeding points in 2003, there wasn’t a huge amount at stake for either of them. It is difficult to see how either of them seriously believed a driving ban for speeding would ruin his career as an MEP. Nor is the suggestion that she might have acted in the best interests of her children very credible, given that – when it came to trial – she was prepared to offer up an abortion carried out at her husband’s insistence as evidence of his domineering personality.
Pryce’s claim to marital coercion was further undermined by the contrived manner in which she presented her evidence. For such a defence to succeed, it required her husband to have been physically present when she signed the form. And so she described him standing over her with a pen and warning of the consequences if she didn’t comply.
The jury were not convinced. Demonstrating their belief in equality they decided she was every bit as accountable as her husband when she agreed to take his points. She could have refused and put up with his irritation, but she chose the line of least resistance.
So endeth this modern-day morality tale in which both parties behaved badly and are about to get their comeuppance. Huhne’s repeated claims that he hadn’t given his points to his wife – right up until the point he admitted he had – were shameful. But Pryce paid her own personal tribute to International Women’s Day by demonstrating the female of the species can be every bit as cynical and scheming as the male. This case was much more about the anatomy of a messy divorce than an examination of the iniquity of couples taking speeding points for one another.
I’m not sure they deserve the custodial sentences they have been told to expect. But – despite their estrangement – they sure as hell deserve each other.