Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
— Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
If proof were needed that high intelligence is no certain protection against self-destructive foolishness, the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce would supply it.
Huhne had a brilliant academic, journalistic, business, and political career, becoming a minister in the British cabinet. Vicky Pryce, his wife of 26 years and mother of his three children, was a prominent economist, the author of a recently published book, Greekonomics. Of Greek origin, she learned English as a fourth language; but she nevertheless became chief economist to British banks and then a very high-ranking civil servant. Few couples are more successful, at least in the eyes of the world; but both Huhne and Pryce have just been sent to prison.
It will surprise no one to learn that passion was at the root of this wealthy and accomplished couple’s downfall, though the precise nature of the passion involved is not absolutely clear. The trouble began when Huhne abruptly announced that he was leaving his wife for his press adviser. Pryce had long known that they spent much time together, but because the press adviser had entered a civil union with another woman she assumed that her husband was safe from her wiles. (Here I must just interpose a statement of patriotic pride: British scandals are still better and more titillating than the rest of the world’s put together.)
What by all accounts caused the deeply humiliated Pryce to seek revenge on her husband at any cost was the fact that he took his new lover rather than her to a state banquet at Windsor Castle. In days gone by, of course, this would not have been allowed: The hypocritical appearances would have been preserved. A man could keep a veritable harem, but still he had to appear in public with his wife. Alas for Pryce, for whom an invitation to a state banquet was what one might call the Apotheosis of Arrival, we now live in liberal times when a man can take whomever he chooses to meet the Queen, and so the Apotheosis was not to occur, not for Pryce at any rate.
However, she had what she thought was the perfect instrument of vengeance to hand, one that she thought would infallibly destroy his career. (Personally, I suspect that he is indestructible, and will come out of prison with a new career. That is what happens to such types these days.)
In 2003, when Huhne was trying for the first time to enter Parliament, he was caught speeding by radar, not for the first time. In fact, if convicted he would have lost his license, which, for whatever reason, he supposed would have damaged his political chances severely; and so he persuaded his wife, Pryce, illegally to take the rap for him. (In the event, this was quite pointless: He was disqualified from driving a few weeks later in any case, when caught using his hand-held phone while driving. And this, no doubt, gives us some insight into an aspect of his character.)
If Pryce could let it be publicly known, when he was a cabinet minister and after he had deserted her, that he had avoided his penalty by illegally allowing someone else to take the blame, without also letting it be known that the someone else was she, her revenge would be perfect. Pryce therefore went to a newspaper, alleging that Huhne had shifted the blame to a political assistant in his parliamentary constituency. The newspaper discovered, however, that the political assistant whom she named did not have a driver’s license, and the newspaper, concluding that Pryce was unreliable, dropped the matter.
Pryce, however, did not drop the matter. It is possible that she was now being advised by her friend and next-door neighbour Constance Briscoe, a prominent lawyer and one of Britain’s first black recorders, or part-time judges. Pryce might have pondered the choice of her adviser, for Briscoe had achieved the unusual feat of being sued by her own mother for libel as a result of a memoir she had published claiming that her mother had abused her severely as a child. Briscoe won the suit although her siblings testified against her; but Briscoe, aged 55, is clearly unusual, for when her 76-year-old consort, a very prominent criminal attorney, suddenly left her for a 25-year-old aspiring barrister, she seemed to maximize the publicity surrounding his departure. Now she has herself been arrested and faces trial for having lied to the police about Pryce’s case; and the libel case may be reexamined.
In her desperate search for vengeance, Pryce went to another newspaper and spilled the beans about Huhne, this time admitting that it was she who had taken the rap. She was apparently under the impression that only Huhne would be subsequently prosecuted for perverting the course of justice, not she; or that if she were charged, she would be able to mount the defense of marital coercion.