The Liberal Democrats were gathering for their spring conference today as the party became embroiled in new allegations of a cover-up after emails claimed that senior figures were told privately that the former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne had broken the law months before his speeding point swapping allegations became public.
Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky Pryce claimed to have told Nick Clegg’s wife Miriam, two senior Lib Dem politicians and Clegg aides that the former Energy Secretary had illegally evaded a driving ban nearly a decade earlier while he was campaigning for his first Westminster seat.
Pryce, a former government economist, informed a “horrified” Vince Cable, once her boss as Business Secretary, and Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott, the party’s former Treasury spokesman, according to emails that can be published after Pryce was today found guilty of perverting the course of justice for taking her husband’s penalty points.
The verdict marks the low point for a once-glittering couple brought down by lies, overwhelming ambition, infidelity and a thirst for revenge that has torn their family apart and is likely to end with both being jailed. The trial judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, told a visibly-shocked Pryce of the “inevitable consequences” of such a conviction.
Emails between Pryce and a journalist detailed her determined two-pronged strategy to take revenge on the man who left her after 26 years of marriage for his press adviser Carina Trimingham by leaking the story both to newspapers and his most influential party colleagues.
The party now faces demands to reveal what they knew and when about the allegations against Mr Huhne and what action they took. But Mr Clegg and the other Lib Dems dispute Pryce’s version of events, insisting that they were not told about Mr Huhne’s behaviour.
Pryce’s claim is a fresh headache for the Lib Dems after Mr Clegg and other officials repeatedly changed their stories over Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive, who is subject to an internal inquiry over allegations that he sexually harassed women party activists, which he denies. Despite damaging claims of a cover-up and inaction, the party last week retained Huhne’s former seat of Eastleigh in a by-election that saw their Conservative coalition partners pushed into third place.
The extent of the Lib Dems’ apparent knowledge of Huhne’s crime was apparently laid out on April 26, 2011, less than two weeks before The Sunday Times first wrote about the point-swapping saga. The stories sparked a police inquiry and Huhne’s eventual resignation from the Cabinet nine months later.
In an email to Pryce, the paper’s political editor Isabel Oakeshott wrote: “Can I say that a number of CH’s (Chris Huhne’s) “allies,” including Cable, are aware of the situation? To what extent is Clegg aware that something is hanging over Huhne? (you mentioned it to Miriam (Nick Clegg’s wife), didn’t you?)”
Within 45 minutes, Pryce shot back: “Yes, I have told VC, MiriamC, MOak (Lord Oakeshott)…. and a few other Lib Dem Lords and others working close to NC (Nick Clegg). V”
Pryce revealed that she told the Business Secretary two months before the story first broke. He remained her close ally after the break-up of the Huhne-Pryce marriage in 2010 and she accompanied him to his first speech as a Minister to the party’s conference.
In an email to Ms Oakeshott dated April 9, 2011 – a month before the story first appeared – Pryce wrote: “Actually I had told Vince (Cable) and Rachel (his wife) about points before when the three of us were having supper about a month ago – they were horrified at the time but VC (Cable) has probably forgotten it now. He was v. tired that night.”
Nine days later, Pryce revealed that she was having lunch with Nick Clegg’s wife the following day and asked whether she should hint at the story. “I told Vince there is something hanging over him and he wanted to tell Clegg,” she wrote. “I can say am being pestered by the press about something he did which CT (Carina Trimingham) let slip and which I know is true but have been protecting him so far but he has been such a shit not sure I can do it any longer. I am inclined to chance it but not disclose what it is.”
Pryce first met Ms Oakeshott at the 2010 Liberal Democrat party conference following the breakup of her marriage. They regularly exchanged emails after March 1 the following year after they had lunch together at Christopher’s, an American restaurant Christopher’s in London’s Covent Garden, and Pryce quietly told the journalist about the point swapping.
With little in the way of corroborating evidence, Pryce came up with the idea of recording her husband to try to secure a confession. March 3, 2011, Isabel Oakeshott wrote to Pryce saying what the likely outcome would be. “Clegg would probably secretly be gleeful, so wouldn’t rescue him; and Cameron fairly indifferent,” she wrote.
Ms Oakeshott – a distant relative of Lord Oakeshott, a Liberal Democrat grandee who once helped run the Huhne leadership campaign - sent a “cod text” to the Energy Secretary suggesting that the media were not pursuing the story to try to get him to drop his guard during the phone calls but Huhne did not incriminate himself.
In pages of emails between the two women seen by the jury, Pryce raises the prospect of telling Clegg or his close associates that papers are on to Huhne in the hope that Clegg would “ease him out” because he did not want any more scandals.
On the eve of publication at 8.20am on May 7, Ms Oakeshott wrote an email: “What do you think about (you) warning Nick or Miriam about this story and telling them it’s true?? Anything to be gained from doing that, or not? Obviously we haven’t told CH (Huhne) yet that he’s about to find himself at the centre of a shit storm, but we’ll need to do that later today.”
Pryce replied back within the hour saying that she needed to “think when and if to tell them”. A day later, the storm duly arrived.
Mr Clegg’s wife Miriam said: “I have never ever been told by Vicky or anybody else about the traffic points story. I got to know about this when everybody else did.“
A spokeswoman for Mr Cable said: “Vince and Rachel [his wife] have no recollection of the issue of points being raised with them over the course of dinner with Vicky Price on 28 January 2011. They have consulted their personal records which confirm that the issue first came to their attention in May 2011 when the story broke in the press.”
Lord Oakeshott said: “Vicky must have been under a lot of pressure but I’m sure she never raised the question of points with me.”
Lib Dem insiders say that Pryce may have made general remarks about an action committed by her former husband that would damage him but insist that she did not give any details.
One source said that even if Mr Clegg had known about the speeding incident and confronted Mr Huhne, the former Energy Secretary was denying the allegation at the time and Lib Dem leader would have had to give him the benefit of the doubt.