Pryce guilty: The campaign by vengeful wife and 'batty' barrister
Thursday 07 March 2013
As had become the custom, the doors at the Clapham townhouse of the prominent economist Vicky Pryce were thrown open for the Saturday night post-Davos annual bash for economists, Treasury wonks and the politically well-connected despite the looming prospect of a damaging trial.
The party had been a fixture during the years when she was married to Chris Huhne but, two years on from the end of their marriage, the wine continued to flow and spirits were high, according to party-goers. There was no Huhne - he was not invited and was agonising over the decision that in less than 48 hours would see the end of his political career - and marked the natural conclusion of Pryce's campaign to ruin his career for the way he humiliatingly ended their marriage over his affair with an aide.
But the cost of that campaign would only become apparent over more than a month as her decision to wreak revenge on her ex-husband was scrutinised in close detail and her decision-making and family life would be publicly laid bare.
The fullest account can finally be given today of the campaign by a vengeful wife and her "batty" barrister friend that not only ruined a Cabinet Minister's career, but has left her friend facing perjury charges, a family divided, and now, after her carefully-crafted plan backfired spectacularly, the plotter herself facing jail. Over months of investigations by police and Huhne's legal team, it emerged that Ms Pryce worked hand in glove with her neighbour, friend and informal legal adviser, Constance Briscoe, to ruin Huhne after he announced his affair with aide Carina Trimingham during a World Cup football match at home in 2010.
Police unearthed emails that charted Pryce's six-month campaign and compiled a phone log of contacts between Pryce, Ms Briscoe, 55, and four journalists working on the story, that ran to more than 350 pages.
The story began when Huhne - a habitual speeder - was caught driving at nearly 20 mph over the limit by a camera on the M11 on March 12, 2003, as the then MEP headed home from Stansted Airport after a session at the European Parliament at Strasbourg.
Ms Briscoe, a mother-of-two, was a friend and neighbour of Pryce in Clapham, south London, and claims that she was told over a glass of wine shortly after the event that Huhne bullied the economist into taking his penalty points. She told her Pryce that Huhne should "come clean" over the affair.
The couple remained in touch over the years - their children were school friends - but the issue only came to the fore again following the break-up of the Huhne-Pryce marriage in June 2010. Ms Briscoe advised Pryce as she sought to "nail" her ex-husband and ruin his career while trying to avoid prosecution herself.
The two women - who lived three doors apart in Clapham - shared late-night conversations about their shared misfortunes as Ms Briscoe's own relationship with a high-ranking barrister 20 years her senior was also breaking up.
Pryce said she started plotting against her husband after claiming that the Huhne circle was trashing her reputation following her appearance at the September 2010 Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool.
Emails show that Pryce met with a freelance journalist, Andrew Alderson, in November 22, 2010, and told him that Huhne had passed penalty points to an Eastleigh constituency aide, Jo White.
That claim was swiftly shown to be false with Ms White not having a licence until 2004. Barely a week later in early December, she was challenged by the newspaper on whether it had in fact been her who had taken the points. She declined to comment.
The logs and emails showed that Ms Briscoe was also in meetings with the Mail on Sunday. Pryce told her trial that Ms Briscoe had been helping her with legal issues and "keeping the Mail on Sunday at bay".
But in an email sent in December from Mr Alderson to Ms Briscoe, showed how the pair were actively working with the paper. The journalist said in the email: "Good morning. Do we have lift off - ie a statement to the MoS. If so, I suspect he will be an ex-minister by Sunday lunchtime…"
The emails showed that Mr Alderson wrote to David Dillon, from the Mail on Sunday, five days later on December 15, trying to set up a meeting with Ms Briscoe. "Constance is fabulous, (no dithering, no bullshit)" he wrote. "There will be three people around the table all willing this project to come good."
But apparently in the face of a firm denial from Huhne, the Mail on Sunday held off publishing the story. Mr Alderson spoke of his "slightly grumpy" contact Pryce asking if Mr Dillon was no longer interested in the "big story". That story, the prosecution suggested, was about the speeding points.
With her ambition blunted, Pryce met with Isabel Oakeshott, the political editor of the Sunday Times, and told her about the point-swapping story over lunch.
In a series of emails that followed, Pryce came up with the idea of trying to secure a confession by calling Huhne and taping their conversation.
The four telephone calls proved unsuccessful in obtaining one. "I assume the only person who you know who is batty enough to go on this sort of vendetta is Constance," Huhne told his wife in one of the calls.
Pryce's anger against her husband was revealed in the emails between the two women. She said Huhne was "clearly lying to get a better" divorce settlement, the emails seen by the jury showed.
Pryce said that her husband was only able to build a property portfolio of ex-council houses to rent out because of her earning power and cheap shares from his father and hinted that she was "uncovering" things about his finances.
She even suggests her ex-husband's lover, Carina Trimingham, be used as the source for the story to try to protect her.
Briscoe advised Pryce as they drafted a contract with the Sunday Times to go public with her story to give her some legal protection from prosecution. Pryce fretted that it needed to use the words "pressurised" into taking the points.
Stories were published on May 8 2011 in the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday. Ms Oakeshott tipped off the rival publication at the request of Pryce who feared she would suffer a backlash from the tabloid if it was left out of the loop.
The day after the story appeared, Mr Alderson wrote another email to Mr Dillon saying that Ms Briscoe - who said in one email that she had no "particular interest in this story" other than helping Pryce - was "determined to go for the kill".
Further stories appeared in the paper including one based on the comments of a "close friend" - Ms Briscoe - detailing how she was told the news by Pryce in 2003. "I remember it very clearly. I know exactly where I was when Vicky told me about Chris asking her to take his penalty points. It is not every day that someone tells you something like that," the friend was reported as telling the newspaper. "Look it was no secret. If you are asking me was it known within the family that Chris Huhne had got others to take his points, then the answer is "Yes"."
Another email from Mr Alderson followed the same month which said that: "We can both take her (Ms Briscoe) for a 'farewell to Huhne' drink when he bows to the inevitable in the next few days. Constance is partial to the odd glass of wine."
The newspaper revelations prompted an investigation by Essex police who visited Ms Briscoe at home. She proved to be an elusive character who once allegedly left an officer on the doorstep for more than five hours while she went to the gym and met a friend.
"She's very difficult to get hold of," Detective Inspector Martin Pasmore, of Essex police, told a preliminary hearing. "She tends to live a life in crisis most of the time."
During his police interviews, Huhne branded the judge a "well-known publicity seeker" of long-standing and told his wife that he suspected she was responsible for leaks to the media that prompted the police inquiry. He quit the Cabinet after he was charged and pleaded guilty on February 4 to perverting the course of justice.
When police first spoke with Ms Briscoe, she was unwilling to give a statement but urged officers to check texts sent between Mr Huhne and his teenage son Peter.
It led to a 6am raid on the Huhne's Clapham home and the seizure of Peter's phone which revealed that he had urged his father to come clean about what had happened to prevent his mother from going to prison. A story duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday.
The details of Ms Briscoe's role in passing the information emerged only after a court ordered the Mail on Sunday to hand over details of emails and other contacts with the judge.
She was arrested and dropped as the main prosecution witness on the eve of the trial in October last year for allegedly lying in a police witness statement. In August 2012, she told police that she had "absolutely no communication whatsoever" with any newspaper about the story, legal documents show.
But as well as her meetings and emails, it emerged that there was a tape recording of a member of staff at the Mail on Sunday reading an article down the telephone to Ms Briscoe for her approval.
She has been suspended from the judiciary and questioned twice. No file has yet been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service but "if there is an allegation it's likely to be perverting the course of justice in addition to the particular false witness statement," said Andrew Edis, QC, prosecuting, told an earlier hearing.
Police said that she had proved a "difficult" witness and it had been difficult to get hold of her during the investigation.
She had proved reluctant to provide statements, said DI Pasmore. "It was just a question whenever you tried to make contact with Ms Briscoe, it would effectively be on her terms. If she was going to the gym of going for a run there was never any urgency.
"She was hard to explain perhaps a strange character… we dealt with a difficult witness in the best circumstances that we could."
She was eventually - and unusually - allowed to email her answers to compile a statement because she was hurrying to go on holiday. As a part-time judge and barrister, Ms Briscoe's evidence was "unimpeachable" and prosecution authorities had previously blocked attempts to discover her full involvement in the case, Huhne's legal team had claimed.
In a ruling last year, the trial judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, said that the CPS "responded to the effect that the prosecution did not regard itself as being under any duty to pursue what it regarded as a speculative and unreasonable line of enquiry".
The conduct of Ms Briscoe and the genesis of the story against him was central to Huhne's efforts to get the case against him thrown out in the months running up to the trial.
It was "scandalous" that the Crown had sought to rely on her word to prosecute Mr Huhne after what had been a "poisonous campaign" conducted against him, said his barrister John Kelsey-Fry.
But in the week before he pleaded guilty, Huhne learned he had been unsuccessful in his legal challenge. He agonised for days over whether he was going to throw in the towel and his ex-wife's legal team only learnt of his decision to plead guilty on the night after the Clapham party. The following day he stood up in court and pleaded guilty and announced his intention to quit as MP for Eastleigh. Judgement for his wife came more than a month later.
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