The popular, hardworking megastar who is Vicky Pryce
The economist Mrs Huhne has built a glittering career and loyal City fanbase, says Mark Leftly
Sunday 22 May 2011
Vicky Pryce's annual shindig was one of the networking parties of the winter season this year. Again.
The high-flying economist was joined by around 200 guests at her three-storey townhouse in Clapham. There were politicians, such as the former justice secretary Lord Falconer and the outspoken Liberal Democrat peer Matthew Oakeshott, leading civil servants, such as the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, and big-hitting City figures, perhaps the most notable being BT group chairman, Sir Michael Rake.
One person who did not attend was her husband, Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy. The pair have co-hosted the event for years, but are now going through an acrimonious divorce. Last year, Huhne left Pryce for Carina Trimingham, a director of the Electoral Reform Society. After 26 years of marriage, during which Pryce juggled one of the most hectic business careers imaginable with bringing up five children – three with Huhne, two from a previous marriage – she was furious.
This has now erupted into allegations that Huhne once asked Pryce to take speeding points on his behalf. A criminal investigation has begun and Huhne is fighting to save his political career. An interesting feature of this is how much of the business community, in which Huhne was also a spectacular success after making millions in the City, has sided with Pryce. "She's livid and shows no sign of calming down," says one former colleague. "But a lot of us rate her highly, both in terms of competence and as a lovely person."
A look at the career of this "lovely person" shows why the lady born Vasiliki Courmouzis is so respected and heavily supported. After glittering academic results at the London School of Economics, Pryce started out at Williams & Glyn's Bank, rising to chief economist in her 10 years there. Next stop was big oil: three years at Exxon Europe.
But it was her next role that confirmed Pryce as one of the most important economists of her generation. Still only in her early 30s, Pryce joined Peat Marwick McLintock, today part of KPMG, again as chief economist. An early project was producing a five-year plan for the economic development of Guernsey. Pryce led a team of 12 to 15 specialists for a six-month project that involved frequent trips to the Channel Island.
"This was the early stages of developing a financial services industry, helping Guernsey balance that with traditional strengths in tourism and agriculture," explains one of those specialists. "She led her team hard, but people liked her because she was bright and clients were impressed as she was able to explain what was going on in everyday language."
Several KPMG partners, both past and present, agree that her big achievement was work in the former Soviet states in the early-to-mid 1990s. "When it came to the privatisation of the whole of Eastern Europe, she was instrumental in that," says one, who is now a close friend.
This project was running beside several others, such as producing a regulatory structure for Michael Heseltine, then the business secretary, over a prospective privatisation of the Royal Mail. At this level, KPMG partners are essentially working the crazy hours of major lawyers or investment bankers, yet Pryce's long days are said to have stood out.
Pryce was flying to Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania once or twice a month for a few days at a time as she tried to remodel those economies. CSOB, Prague's state-owned bank, was diversified and expanded to become one of the most powerful institutions of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe.
"It was a novel experience for some [Eastern Europeans]," smiles a KPMG alumnus. "They weren't always used to dealing with a senior woman."
By 2000, Huhne had embarked on his political career: he started in the European Parliament. But in 2002, Pryce was to find herself closer to the heart of the political scene. She was made chief economic adviser to the Department of Trade & Industry, a post she held for eight years. She gained a strong reputation for being an independent voice at a time when government had become extremely centralised and message conscious.
Notably, she belittled Gordon Brown's five rules for UK entry into the euro as an "informed guess". She told foreign journalists that there would have to be significant tax rises to meet Labour's second-term ambitions for schools, hospitals and roads.
However, Pryce's individuality was not enough to make her a stand-out candidate to head the CBI, the business lobby. In 2006, she failed to make the cut for the final shortlist to run the DTI. She was enticed back to the private sector last year, and colleagues were disappointed to see her leave. A farewell comment from one in a press release was actually meant: "Vicky has made an enormous contribution across the whole of Government. She will be greatly missed as an effective and highly professional colleague."
It was quite widely reported that Pryce had gone to ground in the wake of the speeding saga. But the truth is she has been working hard at her new employer, FTI Consulting, where she is a senior managing director bringing in £50,000 to £250,000 in fees for each project she wins. These are typically consultations for agencies reviewing economic regulations, such as in telecommunications.
A source close to the firm says: "She's very amenable, very friendly."
Another place where Pryce seems to be winning a lot of fans.
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