FORMER cabinet minister Chris Huhne is facing jail and the humiliating collapse of his political career after he dramatically changed his plea yesterday and admitted perverting the course of justice.
• Former energy secretary facing custodial sentence and stepped down as MP for Eastleigh
• Huhne changed his plea from ‘Not Guilty’ to ‘Guilty’
• Former cabinet minister alleged to have persuaded Vicky Pryce to take points so he could avoid prosecution
The Liberal Democrat, who came within a whisker of leading the party in 2006 and 2007, admitted persuading his former wife Vicky Pryce to take speeding points for him in 2003.
The surprise change in events is a further blow to the embattled Liberal Democrat Party.
Huhne had last week pleaded not guilty to the offence after months of denying allegations made by Ms Pryce in a newspaper interview after their separation.
But yesterday the man who was energy secretary in the coalition government changed his plea after his attempts to halt the case failed.
The disgraced politician emerged from Southwark Crown Court on bail and announced he was resigning his Eastleigh seat in parliament.
The decision will trigger a by-election which will pitch the Tories against the Lib Dems in a further souring of relations between the coalition partners.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he was “shocked and saddened” by the news, but added that Huhne was doing the right thing by quitting.
Alongside the potential loss of his freedom and career, the guilty plea also exposed evidence of the bitter rifts created at the heart of the Huhne family.
In text-message exchanges dating from 2010 and 2011 that were read out in court, Huhne’s son, Peter, branded him “disgusting” and “the most ghastly man I have ever known”.
Ignoring entreaties from his father, Peter – in his late teens at the time – wrote: “We all know that you were driving and you put pressure on Mum. Accept it or face the consequences.”
Huhne’s legal team had made two previous attempts to get the case dismissed or suspended, and as recently as last week he told the court he was not guilty of perverting the course of justice. However, when asked again at London’s Southwark Crown Court yesterday morning, he clearly replied: “Guilty.”
Mr Justice Sweeney granted Huhne unconditional bail, but warned him he should have “no illusions whatsoever as to the sort of sentence that you are likely to receive”.
Perverting the course of justice carries a maximum life prison term, but the average sentence is about ten months.
His new partner, PR adviser Carina Trimingham, was in the public gallery to watch as Huhne made his confession.
The emergence of their relationship in September 2010 ended Huhne’s marriage to 60-year-old Pryce, and the speeding allegations leaked out soon afterwards.
Pryce continues to deny perverting the course of justice over the speeding fine in 2003, and her trial is due to begin today.
Making a statement outside the court, Huhne said: “Having taken responsibility for something that happened ten years ago, the only proper course of action for me is to resign my Eastleigh seat in parliament, which I will do very shortly.”
A party spokesman said Huhne had made clear he intended to remove himself from the privy council – giving up the Right Honourable title granted to senior politicians. However, there is no sign that he will hand back a £17,000 severance payment he received on quitting the cabinet last February.
The developments caused shock at Westminster, where Huhne had been telling friends recently that he expected to be cleared. He was only narrowly beaten by Mr Clegg for the party leadership in 2007, and until his downfall he was still regarded by many as the Deputy Prime Minister’s natural successor.
Many Tory MPs were privately delighted by Huhne’s political demise. They had wanted him sacked for briefing against Tory cabinet colleagues when he was still a minister, most notably Home Secretary Theresa May.
One former Tory MP, Louise Mensch, gave the former minister her sympathy. She tweeted: “I feel sorry for Chris Huhne, on a human level. We’re all people. Best of luck to Eastleigh Tories.”
But Labour MP Simon Danczuk, whose complaint sparked the investigation by Essex Police, said: “It looks like Chris Huhne tried to engineer a cover-up that he couldn’t sustain, and that is presumably why he’s pleaded guilty. None of us are above the law, including ministers, but I do have some sympathy for Chris Huhne in that I wouldn’t have wished his political career to be ruined in this way.”
The politician’s legal team, led by QC John Kelsey-Fry, sparked hours of legal argument with an application to get the case dismissed. But prosecutors said the combination of evidence led to the finger pointing at Huhne as the person behind the wheel, despite his claims he could not remember the offence.
The former cabinet minister had a history of speeding and, with nine points, was already in danger of losing his licence, said the Crown.
An MEP at the time, he would usually fly to Strasbourg early on a Monday morning, park his BMW for free at Stansted Airport, and come back on a Wednesday night then drive home.
On Wednesday 12 March 2003, Huhne flew back from Strasbourg, landing at Stansted at about 10:27pm. Pryce spent that evening at a function at the London School of Economics (LSE), which finished at about 8pm, although it is not certain whether she stayed for a dinner afterwards.
Huhne told police he could not remember any occasion where his wife, who had a clean licence, had come to collect him.
That night, at about 11:23pm, on the M11 – the route he usually took – his BMW was clocked 19mph above the 50mph speed limit. Forms alleging his speeding were sent to the family home in Clapham on 25 March, and just three days later Huhne was spotted by police officers using his mobile phone whilst driving on the Old Kent Road – an offence that would lead to him being banned for six months. The forms relating to the M11 speeding were returned to police on 23 April, saying Huhne’s wife had been driving, and she was given three points.
Prosecutor Andrew Edis QC said the evidence pointed to Huhne driving, and that it was unlikely Pryce would have taken points for an unknown third party or that she would have driven an 80-mile round trip to collect her husband.
In explaining why he would continue with the trial, Mr Justice Sweeney pointed to the texts between Huhne and son Peter which appeared to implicate the former cabinet minister.
Huhne’s exit raises the prospect of a major coalition clash in the by-election for his Eastleigh seat. The Lib Dem MP had a majority of 3,800 at the 2010 general election, but it is viewed as a key target seat for the Tories if they are to get an overall majority in 2015.
Profile: A ruthless and skilled political animal who made one too many enemies along the way
CHRIS Huhne has – as a politician, city entrepreneur and journalist – forged a reputation for ruthless ambition and extraordinary ability.
Before turning to politics the 57-year-old was an award-winning journalist – working for the Financial Times – before heading to the City where he ended up as a vice chairman of the ratings agency Fitch.
He entered professional politics in 1999 when he became a Member of the European Parliament, building his early political career in Strasbourg and Brussels.
Always ambitious, Huhne wasted little time in making the move to Westminster, taking Eastleigh which had been a Tory safe seat until the Liberal Democrats won it in 1994.
Within less than a year of entering parliament he stood for his party’s leadership after Charles Kennedy stepped down, angering many of his other newly elected colleagues who thought there was a deal not to take part in the contest. From being a rank outsider Huhne almost managed to overhaul Sir Menzies Campbell.
A year later he was back again, this time just pipped at the post by Nick Clegg, who was the party hierarchy’s anointed candidate.
It was always believed that Huhne, who fought two bitter elections against the Tories to keep hold of the Eastleigh seat for his party, benefited from tactical voting by Labour and it was understood that he always preferred a centre-left coalition.
Yet he was a key member of the team of senior MPs who negotiated the coalition deal with David Cameron and then took office as energy secretary.
His and his party’s decision to join the Tories in government was seen by some as a betrayal by those who voted Lib Dem in places like Eastleigh to keep the Tories out, but it was also seen as another sign of his personal ambition which was also evident when he started briefing against cabinet colleagues.
Tory back-benchers, who already detested him, were clamouring for him to be removed for disloyalty to the government over attacks on Home Secretary Theresa May.
There was a suspicion that as the Lib Dems grew increasingly unpopular in government, Huhne was positioning himself to make a third leadership bid.
But his belief in himself appears to have been his own undoing.
At about the same time as he went into government with the Tories, he also left his wife Vicky Pryce, who did what women spurned have often done, and told all to a newspaper.
This included an accusation that Huhne had got her to take speeding points for him a decade ago.
After months of denial, Huhne yesterday pleaded guilty to the offence of perverting the course of justice and will likely face jail. His highly promising political career is in ruins.
The Eastleigh by-election will be the first head-to-head contest between the Tories and Lib Dems since the two parties formed the coalition in May 2010.
The constituency on the south-coast of England was a safe Tory seat until 1994 when the Lib Dems won it following the death of Stephen Milligan. Mr Milligan was found dead with an orange in his mouth, apparently self-strangled.