Dani Garavelli: Caught in the crossfire of warring parents

THOUGH I’m not given to taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others, particularly if they ­involve a six-month jail sentence for a crime as victimless as dodging a speeding ticket, I was staggered by the outpouring of sympathy that came Chris Huhne’s way last week.

Ever since the texts between the duplicitous politician and his then 18-year-old son Peter were published, all I’ve heard – mostly from men with teenage sons – is how heartbreaking they are; how they ­underscore the disproportionate price Huhne has paid for his folly; how they shed new light on what is essentially a messy, domestic drama. And, up to a point, they’re right. No-one could read the exchanges – so ­bitter on Peter’s part, so apparently steadfast on his father’s – and not feel ­distress at the disintegration of his family. But I think it strange that all these men ­appear to ­empathise with Huhne rather than his son, whose stream of invective reeks more of vulnerability and anguish than his ­father’s comparatively passive responses.

It is easy to relate to Huhne’s predicament, one commentator said; to imagine how he felt, repeatedly “proffering a hand in reconciliation”, to be met each time with hostility and contempt.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Well, I’ll be honest, I can’t really empathise with Huhne. Oh, I can imagine making a stupid mistake, having an affair or committing a petty crime which causes a degree of collateral damage. But I can’t imagine refusing to take responsibility; I can’t imagine lying and lying; I can’t imagine intensifying my children’s distress to save my career. I can, however, imagine what it feels like to spew out your pain as bile, only to be patronised with such platitudes as, “I hope the passage of time will provide perspective”.

Nor am I convinced by Huhne’s ­attempts at mending bridges. Words are just words after all. If he wanted to convince his son of his love he could have proved it through his actions, by calling a halt to this whole speeding ticket circus as quickly as possible. Instead, he drew it out, protesting his innocence and instructing his solicitors to make an application for the case to be dismissed. Had he pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, there would have been no need for the prosecution to submit the texts as evidence, and Peter would have been spared the additional anguish of ­having them disseminated across the country. But Huhne chose not to.

There is a second aspect to Huhne’s texts that troubles me. It’s that, though genuinely touching, they are delivered in the self-assured tone of a man who believes he is right. Huhne clearly wants to mend the rift, but he is not prepared to do anything as radical as admitting he has screwed up in order to achieve it. So he makes the appropriate paternal noises. He says “I love you”, “I’m proud of you,” “I heard Beckett mentioned and thought of you in Godot,” but he doesn’t come close to acknowledging the scale of the havoc he has caused. He doesn’t say: “I’ve made a bloody big mess of everything” or “if I could turn back the clock, I would do it all differently” or “yes – you’re right I made a mistake and I should face the consequences” or any of the things I suspect a lad in Peter’s position wanted to hear. Of course, we can only judge on the basis of the texts that were read out in court, but on the face of it, there is no expression of regret and certainly no apology.

Not that Huhne is the only villain of the piece. Far from it. Indeed trawling through the transcripts of Pryce’s taped telephone conversations with Huhne (the ones where she tries to get him to admit she took his points for him) and Pryce’s email exchanges with Sunday Times reporter Isabel Oakeshott, in which they discuss how to publish the story and end Huhne’s career, the drama seems to reflect badly on all the main protagonists.

As yet, we don’t know whether Pryce will be found guilty of perverting the course of justice or whether her defence of marital coercion will be accepted. Either way, her reputation has been tarnished.

Whether or not she set out to wreak revenge on her husband, it seems she gave little thought as to how her decision to bring Huhne’s offence into the open would impact on her youngest child. The texts suggest she did nothing to foster ­better relations between her son and her ex-husband and her willingness to use ­allegations that Huhne forced her to have an abortion as part of her defence can only have compounded Peter’s distress.

In fact, the Huhne case is a masterclass in how to make sure separation inflicts the maximum amount of damage on your children’s lives. From the way the discovery of the affair was handled (Huhne took minutes to decide to leave his wife and family for press officer Carina Trimingham after their relationship was revealed) to the washing of the family’s dirty linen in public, the wellbeing of Huhne’s/Pryce’s offspring – the three they had together and the two from Pryce’s previous marriage – seems to have been their last priority. As for whether or not newspapers should have printed the texts, why not? They were in the public domain and were germane to Huhne’s last-minute decision to change his plea to guilty, and serve as a cautionary tale. “Look and learn,” they say, “this is what badly handled divorces do. They turn loving children into defensive, spite-filled strangers.”

It is par for the course for teenagers to be overly harsh towards parents they believe have let them down. Peter’s reaction was venomous. But he’s young. One day, I expect, he’ll come to regret the acerbity of his responses. There is no evidence, however, that Huhne and Pryce have any qualms about their treatment of their son. And they are old enough to know better.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1