VICKY Pryce, the ex-wife of disgraced former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, is facing jail after a jury found her guilty of perverting the course of justice by taking his speeding points.
Pryce, 60, was convicted after a retrial at Southwark Crown Court, while former energy secretary Huhne admitted the offence last month.
A date for their sentencing has not been set, but the pair have both been warned by Mr Justice Sweeney to be under no illusion of what to expect. Perverting the course of justice carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, with the average jail term ten months.
Pryce looked shocked as the jury of seven men and five women returned the guilty verdict after deliberating for more than 12 hours. Giving a statement outside court as the economist faced crowds of waiting media, her solicitor Robert Brown said: “Mrs Pryce is naturally very disappointed to have been convicted.
“She would like to thank all those who have supported her during this difficult process, particularly her children, her friends and colleagues.
“Mrs Pryce will return to court to be sentenced in due course.
“No further comment will be made until this is completed.”
A jury in Pryce’s original trial failed to reach a verdict, demonstrating what were described as a deficiencies in understanding the case and sparking a retrial.
In further political fallout, Business Secretary Vince Cable and Nick Clegg’s wife Miriam yesterday denied they knew anything of the scandal before it hit the headlines, after questions were raised about how much senior Lib Dems had been told before the story was published.
E-mails between Pryce and Sunday Times political editor Isabel Oakeshott suggested Pryce had confided in Mr Cable and his wife Rachel about the points-swapping.
Pryce, a respected economist who frequently appeared on current affairs programmes, was granted bail until sentencing. But the judge told her, as he had told Huhne, to expect prison.
“Obviously, Ms Pryce was present when I indicated to Mr Huhne the inevitable consequences of a conviction of this sort,” Mr Justice Sweeney said.
“She must be under no illusions that my granting of bail indicates any watering down of that provisional approach.”
Pryce used a rare defence of marital coercion, which can only be used if a woman committed an offence because her husband was present and coerced her to the point she could not exercise free will. Pryce was accused of changing her original story so the defence could be available to her, by claiming that she was with Huhne when he asked her to take his speeding points.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it would apply to recover the costs of the case – estimated at £100,000 – from the couple. Huhne, a multi-millionaire with nine homes at one time, is estimated to have spent between £350,000 and £500,000 on his defence, including lengthy attempts to get his case dismissed. Essex Police spent some £100,000 on the speeding investigation, and a subsequent review of the case.
“Chris Huhne made sustained challenges against the prosecution before pleading guilty at the last minute,” Malcolm McHaffie, deputy head of special crime at the CPS, said. “We will be applying for costs.”
The allegations date back to 2003, when Huhne’s BMW was clocked speeding on the way from Stansted Airport as the then-MEP travelled home from Strasbourg. Huhne already had nine points on his licence and risked a ban, which he feared would ruin his chances of being nominated as the Lib Dem candidate for Eastleigh, Hampshire.
Pryce said he made her take the points, even waving a pen at her, forcing her to sign a form.
Huhne, 58, lost his licence anyway later that year for another offence but went on to be nominated as the Lib Dem candidate for Eastleigh, winning the seat in 2005.
The allegation about the points-swapping became public in May 2011 when it was published in the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times, nearly a year after Huhne ended his 26-year marriage to Pryce.
He confessed to Pryce to having an affair with bisexual PR adviser Carina Trimingham in June 2010, during half-time of a World Cup match, after learning he was about to be exposed.
The trial heard Pryce, with the help of part-time judge Constance Briscoe, embarked on a press campaign to “nail” Huhne.
Briscoe has since been arrested, after claims she allegedly lied to police about her dealings with the press.
The women first approached the Mail on Sunday, falsely claiming Huhne had passed points to a constituency aide. Pryce went on to reveal the story to Sunday Times political editor Ms Oakeshott in March 2011.
The revelations that Huhne had passed points to “somebody” ran in both the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday and, as the story snowballed, it emerged it was Pryce. Among the evidence were four phone calls recorded by Pryce in a set-up to help the Sunday Times “stand up” the story .
During the first call, recorded in 2011, Pryce told Huhne there were journalists outside her door, “who want to know what happened re me taking your points”. Huhne replied: “If you want to avoid journalists doorstepping you, you should stop telling ridiculous stories to the press.”
The pair then got into an argument as Pryce attempted to persuade him to admit to the offence while she taped the call.
Huhne and Pryce were arrested, and in February last year were charged with perverting the course of justice.
Huhne, then energy secretary, stepped down from the Cabinet, vowing to fight the charges.
But when lengthy attempts by his legal team to get the case thrown out failed, he changed his plea on the first day of trial, resigning as Eastleigh MP and ending his political career.
That triggered a by-election which the Lib Dems won.
During her trial, Pryce, a mother of five, told the court her ex-husband had prioritised his political ambitions throughout their marriage, forcing her to compromise her own career. She said Huhne demanded she have an abortion in 1990 because it would be bad for his career.
Pryce, who was given glowing testimonials from figures including former head of MI6 Sir John Scarlett, said she had been left fragile by the break-up.
But prosecutor Andrew Edis, QC, said Pryce was a capable, manipulative and intelligent woman who had acted of her own free will.
How it all went sour for couple who had it all
To many people, Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce appeared to have it all. He was a Cabinet minister with a shot at the Liberal Democrat leadership; she was the UK government’s top economist.
Former journalist and City economist Huhne was a millionaire in his own right, with a large property portfolio. Greek-born Pryce boasted a glittering career in the corporate world, later becoming the government’s top economist on a six-figure salary, then joining a consultancy firm.
Huhne took on Pryce’s two daughters from her first marriage, and the couple had three children of their own. Wealthy, successful, and apparently happy, they boasted high-profile friends such as Vince Cable and Lord Oakeshott, as well as Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam. But during Pryce’s trial, she painted a very different picture of her marriage.
She claimed Huhne had been a ferociously ambitious husband who would stop at nothing to achieve his political aims, and she described having to constantly compromise and sacrifice her own career so he could pursue his.
But however the saga ends, it will be a very different future from the one that once awaited the couple who had it all.
88-year-old legal argument fails again
The trial of Vicky Pryce shone a spotlight on the rarely used defence of marital coercion, which dates back to 1925.
It can only be used if a woman committed an offence because her husband was present and coerced her. He must have been physically present, and to have put pressure on her so her “will was overborne” and she was “impelled to commit the offence”.
It last hit the headlines when canoeist John Darwin’s wife Anne said she had been coerced into helping him in his scam – a claim rejected by the jury.
Previously, the onus was on the accused to persuade a jury they had been coerced, but trial judge Mr Justice Sweeney said human rights legislation meant the prosecution had to prove Huhne had not coerced Pryce.