It was a thoroughly forgettable, innocuous event that happened in a flash exactly 10 years ago next Tuesday in Essex, an English county northeast of London. A camera snapped a shot of a speeding black BMW, prompting the mailing of a £60 fine to its owner of record, one Chris Huhne of south London.
Huhne at the time was happily married to Vicky Pryce, who would later be mentioned as a favorite to become the first female Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain. They were a power couple. He would later win a seat in Parliament and ascend in 2010 to the cabinet of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.
But the dream blew up, in full view of all Britons, courtesy of a photographer’s camera, a surreptitious tape recording, and a lust for status that caused both to turn on each other publicly in a drama fit for a script.
What happened that forced Huhne to quit the U.K. cabinet? Why did the educated and accomplished Pryce attempt to invoke what London’s Guardian newspaper called the “archaic” defense of “marital coercion” in court? At several points in the decade-long waiting game that started with a speeding ticket, either one could have realized that their own behavior could doom both careers. But neither did.
The case had a twist that supercharged it. Huhne had collected earlier speeding tickets and even had his license suspended for using his cell phone in heavily congested London. This time he faced a 90-day driving ban. So he asked — or demanded — that his wife take the fall and claim she’d been at the wheel.
That was the end of it. There was no controversy until Huhne decided in early 2011 to take up with his bisexual former aide, who’d just left her girlfriend. Worse, the pair, who’d been running into the country for their affair while Pryce looked after the kids, was caught on camera by the always-hungry News of the World paper.
Huhne then decided to abruptly leave Pryce for a woman 14 years her junior. It was a stunning decision in a city stocked with readers that love a good scandal and politicians that fear them. Huhne had been elected to Parliament as a Liberal Democrat — the third party in Britain — in 2005. That would have left him nowhere by itself. But in 2010, Britons voted to replace the Labour Party, but gave neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats enough votes to form a government. So the two parties formed a coalition, and Huhne became Energy Secretary in a cabinet under Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and the Liberal Democrats’ leader.
Pryce, born in Greece and educated as an economist, was stunned, and left her job in the Cameron administration at No. 10 Downing Street. Cameron’s insistence that the split was “entirely private” didn’t hold up. Huhne had run as a “family values” candidate. Now he was nicknamed the Minister for Hypocrisy.
Observed the Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover: “It is not, as some suggest, a small matter to ask a spouse to take your speeding points.” The convenient white lie had engulfed Huhne and could land him in prison. After pleading guilty to a charge of “perverting the course of justice” he quit in February 2012, the first cabinet member to have been forced out by his plea in a criminal case.
But his biggest problem lurked at home. Pryce, still beside herself, played up the role of the spurned lover. Apparently wanting to expose Huhne in the ticket identity case, she taped him talking about the three penalty points she’d taken on his behalf. The tape soon wound up in the hands of two London Sunday papers. Police went to court and rounded them up soon enough.
The sympathy that had bathed Pryce was quickly evaporating as news of her campaign to retaliate against Huhne emerged. Nonetheless, she could count on the support of women’s rights groups after she pled not guilty, claiming that she had been bullied and coerced by her husband into taking the fall for him.
The first trial ended in a hung jury last month. The next time, the prosecutor pushed ahead with his claim that Pryce’s decision was entirely her own, with revenge a compelling motive. On Friday, the jury agreed, and she now faces four months to three years in prison.
It was an astonishing case, played out in a city that eats scandals like snacks. Huhne had become wealthy as a financial advisor. Now 58, he is a disgraced politician with a clouded future. Pryce, 60, was a six-figure economist who wrote a paper called “Greekonomics” predicting Greeks might hide Euro notes in their underwear if they had to exit the Eurozone.
The pair put five kids — three their own — in the turbulence of scandal, as well as their jobs. In 2003, when Huhne’s BMW was clocked speeding, neither figured where the minor case could lead when mixed with the imperatives of a wealthy and politically connected lifestyle.
Neither Pryce nor Huhne saw such a scandal in their future. It grew in increments. Neither felt that at any given moment, their next unwise act would bring them down. But they fell because each failed to realize that the next step — fueled by lust or revenge — would force them down a path with no exit.
It was an act fit for fiction. Each could recover. But for now, the truth has bitten them both.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.