Each day they embraced, chatted and then laid waste to one another in public. But they still hope to live happily ever after.

Rebecca Fowler on life with the Ashbys
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The Independent Online
As David Ashby, the Conservative MP for Leicestershire North West, dropped his head into his hands, and started to sob gently under the watching eyes of the assembled lawyers, journalists and public in Court 13 at the High Court, his wife, Silvana, walked to him from the other side of the courtroom, placed her arm around his shoulders and knelt to his ear. She was offering reconciliation an sympathy, a peculiarly ill-judged gesture given that her evidence during the 20-day libel trial had been central to his defeat. Facing legal bills of perhaps pounds 500,000 and with his reputation in tatters, the only response Mr Ashby could muster was to hiss: "Leave me!"

It was an eerily appropriate image to close the Ashby trial: yet another apparently well-meant but desperately ill-timed attempt at reconciliation between a couple who have protested that they love one another even while they have laid into one another as if they were sworn enemies.

After three weeks of fighting to clear his name of allegations that he was a "liar and hypocrite and a homosexual", Mr Ashby stared disaster in the face. His family has been torn apart by the libel drama against the Sunday Times, his political career could be in ruins, his name as a criminal barrister is tainted, and he faces possible bankruptcy if he is to pay his legal fees.

It took the jury five hours to reach a majority verdict in favour of the newspaper, which alleged last January that Mr Ashby had had an affair with a young male doctor, whom he admitted to sharing a bed with on a trip to France. Mr Ashby walked away from the Royal Courts of Justice a broken man, alone, apart from a stoney faced lawyer and two policemen, to fight through the throng of hungry media outside.

For both sides there was little to celebrate in the absurd and tragic drama. Noticeably absent from the court was the Ashby's daughter, Alexandra, 27, who gave evidence against her mother, the newspaper's key witness, in favour of her father. Mr Ashby's sister Lynne Garling, who allegedly first leaked the claim that he was a homosexual, was nowhere in sight.

The most poignant words of the day were uttered by Mrs Ashby, who had continually alleged her husband was gay, and was called on as the Sunday Times's key witness. In turn, her husband portrayed her as a spiteful, vengeful and obsessive harridan, prone to violence and foul-mouthed tempers, who could not be trusted.

Perfectly turned out in cream silk and black with her trademark fur hat, she attempted to make sense of the trial, which had called on her and her family to betray their most intimate secrets.

"I have no idea what the future holds for me. I hope and trust that relations with my daughter will return to normal as quickly as possible. I also want to establish a friendly relationship with my husband, with whom I have shared so much over the years. In that context, 'least said, soonest mended', that is all I wish to say."

For most of the time in Court 13 it did not seem that the Sunday Times was on trial but the family. They made a strange spectacle. For three weeks they have arrived at the High Court in separate parties to perform a bizarre ritual: they embraced warmly, chatted amicably and then proceeded to court where they destroyed one another in public. During the recesses Silvana, 53, drawing elegantly on a cigarette, would sit at one end of a corridor, while her estranged husband, two years older and also smoking, sat anxiously at the other. Flitting awkwardly between them was Alexandra. She gave evidence against her mother but says that she loves both her parents "deeply".

On paper, the Ashbys were a model family. He was a moderately successful criminal barrister. The family was always very well turned out. But what emerged from the proceedings was a tale of suburban sadness and strangeness: a husband who sobbed and pouted through his evidence, which included a special electrical helmet consisting of a skull cap and large nose piece attatched to a pipe that he wears at night to blast air into his nostrils to help him to sleep.

So how did the Ashbys come to be here, just before Christmas, each accusing the other of domestic violence, cruelty and even madness? How could the solid Tory with a depressive streak and the Italian, who still flashes a winning smile, ever have come together at all?

The couple met in 1964 on a skiing holiday in Sestriere, Italy. Mr Ashby said that within two hours he was in love. Mrs Ashby, then 22, the daughter of a middle class Italian family that owned a small business and some property including flats, had won a place at university to read psychology and Italian, but her father told her she was needed at home. He believed she would be happier being involved in the family business.

Instead, perhaps to escape, she married Mr Ashby in 1965 and joined him in Chelsea, London, where he was building a career as a criminal barrister. "We just clicked, we had something in common. I admired his way of thinking, that's how it happens isn't it," Mrs Ashby said yesterday.

The honeymoon did not last long. At first they spoke French because it was the only language they both understood. Mrs Ashby soon found her husband distant and detached. "My husband was always out. At the weekends he was out playing rugby. I couldn't speak the language. I had no friends, nor relatives. I said to my husband, 'Can you be more at home?' He said, 'I'll buy you a dog instead'."

But it clearly wasn't a complete disaster. They had a daughter in 1968. Mr Ashby pursued his legal and political careers, starting as a councillor for Hammersmith and then moving on to the ill-fated Greater London Council. They shared a love of opera, gardening and dogs, and Mrs Ashby raised Alexandra. Mr Ashby launched his career in 1983 as the MP for Leicestershire North West.

Yet beneath this public facade of happiness and respectability were seething hatred and venom. If anyone could cast light on the Ashby marriage, it must be the child who declared she loved both parents and saw them at close quarters each day. Alexandra, who works as a stockbroker in Milan, coolly described her mother as a possessive woman prone to exaggeration, who had even accused her of being a lesbian when she was 15 on a beach holiday in Italy.

She claimed Sunday lunches at the family home were a battlefield, with disaster always just around the corner. "All three of us together was quite an explosive mix," she said. "It was a competition for my father's affections."

Mrs Ashby's account makes it difficult to understand how the marriage lasted at all. There were some splendid times, she says, although when pressed she cannot recall specific examples. She says that from the beginning he was reluctant to show her any physical affection, dismissed their sex life as "not very satisfactory", and claimed her husband said she should book an appointment if she wanted to talk to him. "He was trying to avoid me. I thought there was something wrong with me. I lost my confidence. I felt I was just the maid, not his wife. I was going as often as I could to my family again in Italy. At least I knew I could be myself there."

One of the few things the Ashbys did together was go on holiday. It was on one of their trips to the Seychelles that Mrs Ashby believed her husband had an encounter which changed their marriage. They met a homosexual couple, Cecil and Geoffrey, and Mr Ashby would allegedly leave Silvana on her own while he went off with them each evening to play chess on a giant outside board.

The Ashby battle intensified in 1983 when Mr Ashby won the seat for Leicestershire North West, allegedly making him even less available to his family. He described his wife's behaviour in the last decade as a tyrannical and obsessive, and that she attacked him physically, accused him of affairs with men and women, and drove his friends and family away.

Mrs Ashby recalled how they had visited the House of Commons for the first time, and gone into the tea rooms like excited children. On the outside, they had the trappings of the ideal Tory couple. Mrs Ashby, like so many Tory wives, worked as her husband's secretary, attended endless fetes. They adored their dogs, their garden and their daughter. But as they sipped tea on the terrace at Westminster Palace, celebrating Mr Ashby's victory on his first day as an MP, he dropped another bombshell, according to his wife.

"Coming back down the Embankment, he said, 'Remember, Silvana, from now on for you I am dead. I don't exist for you anymore. I will dedicate myself to my work'," Mrs Ashby recalled.

According to Alexandra, her mother became even more possessive during this period. She accused her husband of affairs that varied from Tim, a young parliamentary researcher, to Val, a member of his constituency. The marriage entered its most desperate period in the last six years. She, in turn, was accused of an affair with Ricardo, a young Italian plumber in London. "I don't fancy toy boys," she scoffed, and added he was from the wrong part of Italy anyway.

The Ashby marriage sank to the depths while Mr Ashby pursued his political career. He said: "For the last five, maybe six years, we had fought every single day. The fights were often vicious, the language was vicious ... she knew how much that upset me." He said his wife would swear at him, taunt him, attack him physically, and reduce him to tears. He described her as a Jekyll and Hyde personality, who would scream at him one minute and cuddle him the next. He later added: "I was completely isolated, I have been isolated all my life."

Mr Ashby's own family was apparently far from harmonious. His two brothers and sister were constantly at war over the family business. In 1993, during a business dispute, Lynne Garling drew pictures of her brother with a noose around his neck and in a coffin to express her feelings towards him.

The Ashby saga culminated at Christmas 1993, when the couple had separated and Mr Ashby had moved to a flat in Putney, where his neighbour was Dr Ciaran Kilduff, 32, with whom Silvana believed he was having an affair. With brazen clarity, she admitted she had made a series of obscene calls to Dr Kilduff's home, accusing him of being her husband's boyfriend. When Mr Ashby declined an invitation to spend Christmas lunch with her and their daughter in favour of Dr Kilduff, according to Mr Ashby, she drove round to the Putney flat, where he was preparing a salad supper, and screamed "poofters, poofters" through the letterbox, a word Mrs Ashby insisted she was not familiar with. "I have learnt a lot of new words during this trial," she told the court.

Both accused the other of violence, albeit of different kinds. Mrs Ashby claims her husband pushed her down the stairs and punched her. Mr Ashby said he was devastated when, in the middle of the row which moved from the garden of his flat, on to the stairs and into the study, his wife threatened to join the Liberal Party, which he found "very, very upsetting". The police were eventually called to take Mrs Ashby away before Alexandra managed to coax her home.

The true extent of their savagery was revealed when, Mrs Ashby claimed, her husband threatened to kill her with a kitchen knife when she arrived at his constituency home unannounced, where he was entertaining a male friend.

A fight followed, in which Mrs Ashby says her husband punched her and threatened to set her on fire with a lighted cigarette. She allegedly grabbed a sharp knife from a wooden block, and shouted: "I'm going to kill you, I'm going to kill you."

Shortly afterwards, Mr Ashby borrowed Mrs Ashby's Volvo, and returned it with a copy of a letter he had sent to the local police informing them Mrs Ashby was committing what he considered to be a serious offence by knowingly driving without insurance. (She claims she did not know because her husband never told her.) "Should you wish to consider prosecuting my wife, I'm prepared to be interviewed," he wrote.

Yet after all the pain and the accusations both added a final theatrical flourish by insisting they still loved each other. Even when she believed her husband was gay, Mrs Ashby said she could not let go. "If you love someone, you trust them fully, and I love David more than my life," she said. "I still do." Mr Ashby declared through his tears: "I still think she's wonderful."

It was only in the corridor as she sat alone that Mrs Ashby allowed herself the luxury of sentiment. She plans to stay in England, and expects to spend Christmas with Alexandra. She does not know where Mr Ashby will go this year.

"Of course it's going to be very hard. Of course I have forgiven my daughter. It was terrible for her having to give evidence against her own mother. But you always forgive your children. I didn't blame her for it. But the future is hard. There are no happy endings here."