The cover up is always more devastating to a political career than the original crime. When the cover up involves a crime, a mistress and a vengeful ex-wife then you are definitely onto a loser. Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce are guilty of evading traffic laws and misleading the police - and both have been sentenced to eight months in prison. By all accounts, swapping points is something very common, so is this story really a big deal? I think so, but my focus is on the road crime, not the deceits.
Chris Huhne made a judgement call on what I suspect he saw as a minor infringement of the rules. In the same way that MPs once made bad decisions about their expenses, or journalists over-stepped the mark on phone hacking. Individuals make moral choices and must take responsibility for those choices, but those decisions are influenced by what people see around them. I doubt that we will find any MPs claiming for duck ponds or flipping their houses in the near future. I imagine that the future relationships between journalists, police and private investigators will be less murky and more professional. Rules may or may not have been tightened, but the real change is in the way that we all adhere to those rules.
The rules on our lawless roads are clear, signposted and widely ignored. Speeding kills and casualties are rising, but the police won’t enforce 20mph limits in residential areas and safety cameras are regularly vandalised as an infringement of our civil liberties. Try driving at or below the legal speed limit and see how often you are flashed, honked, tail-gated or dangerously overtaken. Perhaps I am giving Chris Huhne too much credit, but I suspect that he had been caught breaking other rules or laws, he would have felt obliged to take the blame straight away. I also doubt that Vicky Pryce would have been silly enough to let him pass the buck either. In our culture, speeding is one thing, corruption, fraud and bribery is another.
In 2011, there were 3,535 hit and runs, involving an injury, in London alone. That is 68 deaths or injuries per week, where the driver of the car, lorry or van leaves the scene of the crash. It is against the law, but an ordinary mix of good and bad people, regularly do it. It is a crime so regular and widespread that apart from individual fatalities reported in local papers, it is hardly remarked upon. People apply different rules when they get behind a steering wheel and politicians do the same. Traffic police numbers have been regularly cut back, even during the good years, and road safety has now been left out altogether from the London Mayor’s draft Police and Crime Plan.
The most ironic thing about the scandal of Chris Huhne’s points is that if he had put in a special plea to the local magistrate he might not have been disqualified at all. Such is the failure of our society to take road deaths and injuries seriously, tens of thousands of people are legally allowed to drive around with more than 12 points. When I did a Freedom of Information request on this in October I found that there were over 2,800 people driving in London who were let off because they needed a vehicle in order to do their job. One person even had 30 points on their licence. Both Chris Huhne and Vicky Price made stupid choices and are now paying the price. The punishment, as with the crime, reflects the culture we live in. I think it would be much more fitting if such criminals did community service rather than joined our over crowded prisons, but I would also prefer that Chris Huhne was banned from driving and had to use public transport for a few years. That for me would send out the appropriate message about what really needs to change.