Lib Dem former minister faces jail after guilty plea to perverting course of justice

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

Former Liberal Democrats leadership challenger Chris Huhne’s decision to plead guilty to perverting the course of justice threatens a bitter by-election battle.

Mr Huhne was charged in February last year, accused of getting his then wife Vicky Pryce to tell police that she was driving when his car was spotted speeding on a motorway 10 years before.

Last year, the former energy and climate change secretary sought to have the indictment quashed. Last week, he pleaded not guilty, but changed his plea when asked again yesterday.

Speaking outside Southwark crown court, he said he had “taken responsibility”, adding that “the only proper course of action” is to resign as an MP for his Hampshire constituency.

He could face life imprisonment for perverting the course of justice, though a sentence of up to three years is more likely. His former wife, a well-known economist who was bitterly angry after Mr Huhne ended their 27-year marriage in 2010, has pleaded not guilty on the ground of marital coercion.

In May 2011, she told The Sunday Times that her former husband had lied about the speeding offence, saying that he “does drive a bit like a maniac”.

Two weeks later, The Sunday Times reported a taped conversation, where Mr Huhne allegedly tried to persuade his wife not to talk to the press about the incident.

The tape reported him as saying: “There is no way, there is no way, that there is any evidence for this story, unless you decide to give some legs to it by saying something. OK?”

In September 2011, Mr Huhne said he was “hopeful that the crown prosecution service will reach the conclusion that there is not a case to answer”. After the decision a month later to prosecute, Mr Huhne resigned from the cabinet, saying the prosecution was “deeply regrettable”.

Shocked by plea

On Sunday night, Mr Huhne telephoned the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who declared yesterday that he was “shocked” by his guilty plea, to offer advance warning.

Last January, Mr Clegg said Mr Huhne had told him directly that he was not guilty: “He has been crystal clear that he denies any wrongdoing,” the Lib Dem leader said then.

Mr Huhne twice unsuccessfully contested the leadership of the Lib Dems: in 2006 against Sir Menzies Campbell and 18 months later when he was beaten by Mr Clegg.

His impending resignation from will provoke a by-election in his Eastleigh constituency in Hampshire, where the Conservatives must perform strongly.

However, the Lib Dems’ constituency chairman, Keith House, expressed confidence that the seat can be held, despite anger locally at Mr Huhne’s behaviour.

“We had a by-election in 1994; we were winning seats at local council level when the Liberal Democrats had a zero percentage opinion poll rating in the late 1980s. So we’re used to tough times.

“We’re used to working hard and we’re used to winning on the back of that. It’s been nine years since the Conservatives last even held a council seat in Eastleigh,” declared Mr House.

However, the by-election is unwelcome both to Mr Clegg and to Tory leader and prime minister David Cameron, who will fear a strong performance by the UK Independence Party.

The anti-EU party performed poorly in Eastleigh in 2010, but the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, may turn the by-election into a mini-referendum on the European Union.