Huhne v Pryce: the politics of dirty linen

This sordid affair exposes how insular, self-important and allergic to the ideal of privacy the modern political class is.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

It was a moment strangely out of context. After two court cases, two years of accusation and counter-accusation, and 10 years of off-white lies about who exactly took the speeding penalty points, ex-Lib Dem minister Chris Huhne and his estranged wife, the economist Vicky Pryce (the recipient of Huhne’s penalty points), were about to be sentenced for perverting the course of justice. But it seemed that Huhne’s lawyer, John Kelsey-Fry QC, wanted to make one thing clear during the mitigation pleas: Huhne did not want two family letters, which go into details of his and Pryce’s marriage, read in court.

Of course, for anyone who has not been gripped by this not-so-fast but definitely furious tale of marital strife, bisexual aides and blurry speed cameras, Huhne’s decision not to have two revealing letters read out in court might seem normal. It might even seem dignified. But for those who have followed the case – and given the blanket media coverage, it’s been difficult to miss – Huhne’s reticence was at odds with what had preceded it. Because for nearly two years now, and especially during the recent court cases, Huhne and Pryce have been assiduously scrubbing their soiled linen in full public view.

It has made for a thoroughly unedifying spectacle. We have been told how Huhne supposedly ‘bullied’ Pryce into an abortion over 20 years ago – which he strenuously denies. We have heard how Huhne and Pryce’s children do not want to speak to him anymore. We have been able to read the acutely embarrassing text exchanges between Huhne and his angry son Peter. And we know far too much, near-novelistic detail about the nature of Huhne and Pryce’s relationship. Perhaps, at the last, Huhne felt sorry for the public, and decided to spare us from the further epistolary revelations. Either way, a tawdry marital conflict, replete in he-said, she-said bickering, has been pursued in public. And neither Huhne nor Pryce emerges with any credit.

And that is what is striking about the whole inglorious affair: not the severity of the punishment for a ‘minor bureaucratic crime’ that hundreds of thousands of us have admitted to committing, but the almost complete absence of boundaries between public and private. If it signifies anything, the Huhne-Pryce affair, which is eye-squintingly trivial by the standards of past political scandals, provides a telling snapshot of the depraved reality of the political and media class, their collective inability to distinguish between what ought to matter and what is not a big deal, between capital ‘p’ Politics and small ‘p’ pettiness.

In some ways this is not surprising. Pryce and Huhne – she an economics adviser to the government, him a leading Lib Dem politician – were at the epicentre of the contemporary Westminster village. Scan almost any account of their downfall and, without fail, there will be a mention of the lavish post-New Year parties the couple hosted. Here’s an account from The Times: ‘An annual party, thrown to blow away the winter blues in January or February, their large Georgian home in a particularly desirable terrace in Clapham would be packed with politicians, senior civil servants, think-tank pen-suckers and newspaper opinionators. One year the place was so full that there was concern that the floor might collapse and guests would find themselves crashing down into the book-lined basement where the power couple shared a home office.’

You can almost picture the scene. Commentators such as the Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee, ‘who lives nearby’ according to the Daily Mail, chinwagging with Lib Dem luminaries such as Lord Oakeshott, a relative, as it happens, of Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times journalist who broke the penalty-points story in 2011. Or centre-left, right-on think tankers gabbing away to senior civil servants from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about people who work in the same area socialising, of course. But today, in lieu of a public, in lieu of proper public debate, these distinctly elite gatherings, replete in gossip and intrigue, come to be the places where politics happens, where alliances are formed and grievances sown.

So it is not surprising then, that in this insular, important, not to mention self-important, world, public and private affairs are blurred. Office politics becomes politics proper; and fallings-out between friends and lovers become party-political rifts. Little wonder that Pryce’s bitter determination to ‘nail’ Huhne, to ‘bring him down’ – he left Pryce for his media adviser Carina Trimmingham in 2010 – appeared to the various media outlets who wanted to run with Pryce’s penalty-points-swapping incident as a big political story. It is a small-politics world, after all. Likewise, Pryce’s decision to avenge her broken marriage in the press must have seemed reasonable in the hall of mirrors that is today’s isolated political class.

Yet this shouldn’t obscure the bald fact that a conflict – privately important, but publicly trivial – between an unfaithful husband and an angry wife has been shamelessly pursued in public, first in the media and then in the courts. Now, of course, everyone from Justice Sweeney (who ruled on the case) to assorted politicians talk of a ‘tragedy’. Two talented people, blinded by personal animosities, have brought themselves to ruin, runs the forgiving narrative. But this misses the point. In the collapse of public-private boundaries, where an elected politician was brought down by a private grievance, the real tragedy is a tragedy of the commons. Here, we, the public, have been cast not as engaged citizens but at best as spectators, and at worst as voyeurs.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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