Senior Liberal Democrats spoke today of their deep sadness at the “family tragedy” which saw the break-up of the marriage of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce end with them both being jailed for perverting the course of justice.
Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, who has denied Pryce’s claim that she told him and his wife about the “speeding points swap”, said: “The whole story is unbelievably sad – they’re two very talented people who’ve done themselves great damage and their family is wrecked….that’s the real tragedy in all this.”
Lord Oakeshott, a long-standing family friend of both Huhne and Pryce, said after the sentences were announced: “This is a personal and political tragedy. Chris was a dynamic, decisive, strategic minister – an object lesson to us all in how to fight as hard in office as in opposition for the environment, economic growth, Europe and our essential liberties.”
The Lib Dem peer added: “The tougher the task, the stronger you feel with his laser brain and stout heart on your side. We sorely miss Chris as a doughty warrior for liberal and social democracy. It’s a bitterly cold day for the future of radical, progressive politics in our country.”
At the Lib Dems’ spring conference in Brighton at the weekend, the Huhne-Pryce drama was much discussed in the margins. Some women activists privately expressed sympathy for Pryce over the marriage break-up, which sparked her desire to end his political career by exposing the “points swap.” But the overwhelming feeling among delegates was one of sadness. “We are a family rather than a party; this is awful,” said one senior figure.
Pryce, a distinguished economist, is well-known in Lib Dem circles and has attended the party’s conferences since the break-up of her 26-year marriage. There was speculation that she might become a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate at the 2015 election – a prospect that ended when she was found guilty of perverting the course of justice last week.
Gareth Epps, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum pressure group and a member of the party’s federal executive, said: “This a tragedy for the whole family. The tributes paid to Chris this weekend for the significant contribution he has played in British politics and his successful work as Energy and Climate Change Secretary were genuine and heartfelt.”
Lib Dem officials believe Huhne’s tireless work as a constituency MP was one reason why the party managed to retain his Eastleigh seat in the by-election last month caused by his resignation. “Normally there would be a backlash against the party causing an unnecessary contest, but it didn’t happen,” one said.
Mr Clegg, who was shocked last month when Huhne changed his plea to guilty at the last minute, said during the weekend conference: "Whatever else has happened with Chris and Vicky, it is worth being reminded that he was an outstanding constituency MP; he was also an extremely powerful thinker and, indeed, very effective secretary of state on the green agenda."
Although Huhne’s Lib Dem critics accused him of being overly ambitious and arrogant, even they acknowledged that he was a big-hitter and he won respect for standing up to the Conservatives round the Cabinet table on issues such as green energy, electoral reform and Europe. “We haven’t got enough big beasts,” said one Lib Dem insider.
If he had been cleared and remained an MP, Huhne could have re-emerged as a potential successor to Mr Clegg. He was confident that the case against him would collapse – and even hoped he might return to the Cabinet before the 2015 election.
Huhne, who became friends with Mr Clegg when they were both MEPs, was unlucky to lose when the two men contested the Lib Dem leadership in 2007. Mr Clegg won by 511 votes, but about 1,300 postal votes arrived after the official deadline and, with a late swing already in Huhne’s favour, he might well have won if they had been allowed.
However, the Lib Dems are also keen to distance themselves from the Huhne-Pryce drama, saying it is a personal rather than a political matter. The party machine showed its desire to limit any damage to a party which has had enough scandals by asking Huhne to resign his membership after he pleaded guilty. Carina Trimingham, his partner and a former party press officer, is no longer a member. Pryce is expected to resign, and could be expelled if she does not.