Any time now — well, actually next week — the celebrated trial of Regina v Christopher Huhne and Vasiliki Pryce finally makes it into a full Court. The darkest stage-curtains of the law have been drawn around these proceedings of late, where one of those all-powerful Super-Injunctions applies.
To try and make any sense, it’s worth recapitulating the story so far (and it has ramifications).
The LSE-Brussels express
On 12th March 2003 Chris Huhne was the re-elected LibDem MEP for the South-East of England. He had spent the day as productively as such things can be in Brussels. To be fair, he was an effective MEP, and is to be congratulated for introducing “time-expired” clauses into Euro-legislation.
That evening, he arrived back at Stansted and — as far as the ‘official” record then stood — was collected by his loving wife, Vicky Pryce, and driven back to London. Alas! The Audi was caught by a camera speeding along the M11; and a fine and penalty points were duly awarded. Mrs Pryce (she was born Vasiliki Courmouzis, but has retained her nom-de-guerre from a first marriage in 1972) accepted the points on her own licence, and the fine was paid.
What later became significant is that Mrs Pryce had spent the evening addressing a conference at London’s LSE, and had later taken a full dinner with a double handful of academics. To have collected Huhne at Stansted, she must have driven the 49 miles from Aldwych to Stansted in around 25 minutes.
The issue was that Huhne had a record of offending against the rules of the road — had he been the guilty speeder, he would have incurred a three-month driving ban under the totting-up system. Sadly, our hero managed precisely that in December 2003, having been caught driving along the Old Kent Road, using a mobile phone at the wheel — Vicky became his chauffeuse of necessity.
The parliamentary whizz-kid
Meanwhile, Huhne was selected to be the LibDem candidate for the Eastleigh constituency. This was a plum one: the seat had been held by the LibDem David Chidgely since the by-election following the bizarre death of Tory Stephen Milligan. Know-alls will recollect that self-bondage, autoerotic asphyxia and an orange were involved in that attempt at an Ig Noble award. By a mere whisker (majority 568) Christopher Murray Paul-Huhne was duly elected the member for Eastleigh on 5 May 2005.
The LibDem parliamentary party (suddenly all of 62 MPs) Huhne now joined were not a band of happy bunnies — a few too many over-inflated egos, and an alcoholic leader against whom the rest were plotting. Charles Kennedy promptly appointed Huhne as second-string Treasury spokesman.
When Kennedy fell in January 2006 (he had been making a spectacle of doing so, allegedly), Huhne — never one to undervalue his abilities —had himself proposed for the leadership. He ran comfortably ahead of Simon Hughes, but well behind Menzies Campbell. Ming than annointed Huhne to be DEFRA main man.
Ming was felt to be “too old” and out-of-touch with the thrusting image the LibDems wanted for themselves. When Vince Cable went public in October 2007, the old boy went gracefully; and a second round of the LibDem enstoolment contest was under way. Once again it was Huhne to the fore — only to be pipped by just over 2% of the party vote and by his old MEP mate, Nick Clegg (who, quite possibly, was on that Stansted flight — see above — and, some say, in the car driven by the faster-than-a-speeding-Pryce). Clegg accused Huhne of being underhand in his campaign — there was a mysterious document, Calamity Clegg, in circulation, which reached the BBC from Huhne’s office, but — as he maintained — not with his complicity.
Ahem! Let us pass swiftly on.
Anyway, Huhne was now clearly the second string in the LibDem parliamentary party, and the Home Affairs spokesman.
In bed with the Tories and Ms Trimingham
With the arrival of the ConDem coalition, Huhne became Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change — about as prominent a grandstanding job as any LibDem could wish.
Huhne’s 2010 election materials had featured his loving relations with wife Vicky — ‘Family matters to me so much – where would we be without them?’ — their three children, and his two step-daughters from her first marriage. When Huhne went to the Energy Department, Vicky Pryce properly resigned her very senior post in the Government Economic Service to avoid any conflict of interest.
A month later Huhne was paparazzi’d as he left his constituency flat with his former press officer: he was yet another victim of the News of the World’s Derek Webb (by no coincidence, Huhne had been vocal about NotW’s phone-hackings). To the delight of the scurrilous UK tabloids, Carina Trimingham had been since 2007 in a civil partnership with a Julie Bennett.
Vicky was doorstepped at home, a £1.5 million townhouse in Clapham — see also below — with the glad tidings. At which point Huhne announced he had left his wife, and set up with Trimingham. The Huhne-Pryce divorce came through in January 2011.
The roof fell in soon after.
Soon after the divorce, rumours spread that Mrs Pryce was “on manoeuvres”: both the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail were lapping up any hints going (the only reason the ST — which had most of the story — isn’t cited here is that pay-wall). On 8th May 2011 the Mail on Sunday went for the jugular:
Outspoken Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne was at the centre of an extraordinary controversy last night over alleged motoring offences.
The Liberal Democrat vehemently denies the claims. His denial came as his former wife Vicky Pryce was asked to comment on rumours that Mr Huhne had asked ‘someone close to him’ to take penalty points on his behalf for a speeding offence.
Miss Pryce told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I am aware that he pressurised people to take his driving licence penalty points.’ …
Rumours suggesting Mr Huhne asked someone else to take responsibility for a speeding offence have been circulating in Westminster for months. The millionaire former banker has repeatedly denied the allegations. Friends say the claims are part of a smear campaign designed to ruin his political career.
In recent days Mr Huhne has been accused by party critics of plotting to undermine his leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Mr Clegg’s defeat in the referendum on changing the voting system for General Elections, combined with his abysmal ratings, have brought reports that Mr Huhne could mount a leadership challenge – although he has pledged his ¬loyalty to Mr Clegg.
Allies of Mr Huhne say they have been expecting an unfounded attack on his reputation for some time by unnamed ‘political enemies’.
When The Mail on Sunday approached Mr Huhne last year about the motoring claims, a spokesman said: ‘These allegations are completely untrue. In 2003 Chris Huhne received a driving ban for maximum points and this is a matter of public record.
The Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, righteously batted the matter off to the Essex Constabulary — by this time it was known that the three penalty points for the speeding offence had been collected by Vicky Pryce. Huhne was duly interviewed, and stood by his rights to remain silent. By June 2011 the Essex Police had referred the thing to the Criminal Prosecution Service.
Not quite an open-and-shut case
Vicky Pryce had been having email exchanges with the Sunday Times. The CPS went to the Crown Court to get access to this apparently-damning evidence. The ST then went to judicial review to prevent disclosure of its sources. That delayed any prosecution of Huhne and Pryce until the end of 2011. By then other papers had discovered that the Essex Constabulary had recommended the CPS should prosecute (24 December 2011). The ST withdrew its application for judicial review (20 January 2012). The Director of Public Prosecutions announced there was sufficient evidence to bring charges (3 February 2012). Huhne was thus distinguished as the first member of the British Cabinet ever to face criminal charges (though over the years many, many others had close-run escapes) — and Huhne had accordingly resigned (also 3 February 2012).
Now things start to unravel.
On 16 February 2012 Huhne and Pryce faced Westminster Magistrates’ Court, were formally charged, and granted unconditional bail. The case was sent for trial at Southwark Crown Court: an initial hearing on 2 March 2012, and the full trial for a fortnight, starting on 2nd October. Huhne made no plea and asked that the case be quashed (i.e. that it had really been his wife driving) — which involved a further hearing on 27th July. Pryce pleaded not guilty on grounds of “marital coercion”.
The day before that substantive trial was due to begin, 1st October, the presiding judge imposed an all-purpose super-injunction — and the trail was further delayed for “legal reasons”. We might — just might — get to the real meat on 4th February.
More happy families
Let’s back-track to that sudden legal delay at the start of October 2012; and do a bit of extrapolation.
On 9th October 2012 there came a cryptic announcement from the Office for Judicial Complaints:
The Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor have suspended Constance Briscoe from the judiciary pending the outcome of the police investigation into the allegations against her. It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst the investigation is active.
Up hill, Down Dale
One or two of the follow-up tweets made the Huhne/Pryce connection, in no great depth. If Dale reckons it’s “a massive story”, and keeps quiet about it — we can believe him. If Dale has a grasp of the essentials, so have the likes of Guido Fawkes/Paul Staines (who hasn’t let the topic drop). And so has every political gossiper of any status.
On 16th December 2012, the Mail on Sunday had a story that Laurence Brass, who sits on asylum cases and is a five times LibDem candidate (and ten years a LibDem local councillor) had encountered Huhne and tweeted afterwards:
Breaking news. Met ex-Energy Sec Chris Huhne in Commons, who confirmed that prosecution against him will be dropped next month.
That put the “usual channels” into hysteria mode. Within an hour the tweet had been deleted. Mike Smithson’s Political Betting site had spotted that odds on Huhne replacing Clegg (there is even more animus there) were down to 12/1. The Mail on Sunday‘s story had disappeared from the web-site by next day.
The Crown Prosecution Service made sure the Telegraph next day had it clear: the case would proceed.
The enigmatic Constance Briscoe
It seems that Constance (apparently as a child she was merely “Clare”) Briscoe, a barrister with 9-12 Bell Yard and a Recorder, presiding over Mental Health Tribunals (and, in another non-coincidence, a fellow resident of Clapham), had been Vicky Pryce’s friend, confidante and advisor. There are suggestions that Ms Briscoe was behind drip-feeding Pryce’s revelations to the Sunday Times. She was arrested at Clapham on 6th October, and police investigations are continuing — but we have been given no idea of what charges, if any, will be laid.
Inevitably, Ms Briscoe’s private life — in its own way as remarkable as that of Ms Trimingham — was a cause of prurient delight.
Let us not deny ourselves the chance to review Ms Briscoe’s quite eventful love-life. She was left by her long-term partner of a dozen years, Anthony Arlidge QC, in favour of a younger, blonder model:
The 55 year-old accused leading QC Anthony Arlidge, 75, of being “bonkers” and “mad” after he abandoned her for an aspiring barrister almost a third of his age.
She also claimed Mr Arlidge, a former crown court recorder who has worked on some of Britain’s most high profile cases, jilted her as they celebrated her daughter’s birthday.
The Cambridge-educated barrister has moved out of their marital home in Clapham, south London.
He is now sharing his central London apartment and Kent country house with the 27 year-old, understood to called Heather.
That would be: aspiring barrister Heather Lockwood, 27, who is actually a para-legal assistant at Watmore’s Solicitors in Chancery Lane.
A Malcolmian aside
If all these convoluted relationships seem strange, it can get even weirder:
Mr Arlidge remains married to wife Enid, the mother of his four children.
Their 48th wedding anniversary is next week but they separated nearly three decades ago. He then lived for 16 years with QC Tracy Ayling.
His son John, a freelance journalist who has written for the Sunday Times and Condé Nast, lives with Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s economics correspondent.
Before the briefs, the Briscoe griefs
All of the pain of her childhood went into two books of autobiographical misery: Ugly and Beyond Ugly. Cue Simon Hattenstone interviewing her for the Guardian:
One of the most powerful moments in Ugly comes when Briscoe describes trying to get herself taken into care and is told to go home. She decides to kill herself by overdosing on bleach. She says she diluted the bleach, blistered her throat and made herself sick, but failed in her ultimate mission. Briscoe had planned out her future in purgatory. “I had to work out where I was going to stay, because I wasn’t going to heaven because I’d taken my own life. I was going to spend my time on the stairs in my mother’s house in Sutherland Square, because when you come in through the front door you have to go up the stairs to get to the bedrooms and the kitchen, and if I sat on that step my mother would have to go past me every day, so I was going to attack her, you know, trip her up, punch her in the head, push her head in the wall, when she went past me,” she says with relish.
Ugly is an angry book, I say. She looks surprised, almost hurt. “I don’t think it’s angry at all. I think it’s a very calm book, a very positive book. I think it’s a book that looks forward, not back. What do you mean by anger?” Well, wanting to spend your time in purgatory mashing your mother’s head is pretty angry, I say. “No, that’s just deserts. I think anger would be cutting up my mother’s clothes.”
In November 2008 the mother, Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, sued for libel — and the High Court found the books were not libellous. The rest of the Briscoe family seem to differ from the account in the books (again from Hattenstone):
… her sister Patsy came to the defence of her mother in an article in the Mail on Sunday. She labelled Ugly a pack of lies, the fictional work of a self-hater. Patsy claimed that Eastman was a gentle giant, that Constance was not beaten or sexually abused, as Constance claimed had happened on one occasion, and that the suicide attempt was fabricated. “What she’s done is devious and dangerous,” she said. “Mum’s taken it very badly. She intends to go all the way with her legal action.”
At the same time, another sister, Pauline, provided a statement in which she took issue with a couple of details in Ugly, but said her mother was a woman who had set her whole family against each other.
Briscoe says she is keen for me to talk to the family and passes on the numbers of various siblings and her mother. Her sister, Christine, also a lawyer, tells me she’d rather not get involved and the others don’t return my calls.
Perhaps more to the point, the dates and details Briscoe provides in her books do not accurately tally with provable facts. That’s a curious trait in a senior lawyer. We might also note the BBC report of the libel trial:
… a woman suing her barrister daughter for libel over allegations made in a memoir of her childhood has accused her of being a “wicked thief and a liar”.
Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, 74, told the High Court that Constance Briscoe – who is also a part-time judge – had forged documents for use in her defence …
Andrew Caldecott QC, representing Ms Briscoe, told Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell that she was making “very serious” allegations of forgery.
She told the court: “I have to stand up for myself when you are trying to get me to admit to lies.
“I will never admit to lies.”
Mrs Briscoe-Mitchell also told jurors that when her daughter visited London during her days at Newcastle University, she would “just run around doing shoplifting”.
It crosses Malcolm’s mind there’s a possible half-chance that we have here a basis for the arrest of Ms Briscoe — and why her evidence at the Huhne-Pryce trial might be in doubt (her non-appearance as a prosecution witness would be telling). And why the legal system has gone into Delphic silence mode.