Chris Huhne and his former wife, Vicky Pryce, have both received an eight-month jail term for perverting the course of justice after a decade-old arrangement to avoid a driving ban was exposed by a bitter saga of revenge and recrimination following the collapse of their marriage.
After almost three hours sitting a metre apart from each other in the dock with barely a flicker of acknowledgement, the former cabinet minister and the once high-flying economist received identical sentences after Huhne was caught speeding on the M11 at Chigwell, Essex, exactly 10 years ago on Tuesday when he was an MEP.
"To the extent that anything good has come out of this whole process, it is that now, finally, you have both been brought to justice for your joint offence," the judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, told them. "Any element of tragedy is entirely your own fault."
Huhne, 58, who stepped down as energy secretary last year and then from parliament last month, told the Guardian hours before the sentence that he apologised to his family, friends and former constituents, and said that he had to accept responsibility.
"I should not have asked my ex-wife to take my speeding points, and I should not have lied on an official form, and I should not have tried to evade the consequences," he said.
The judge told him: "Despite your high office you tried to lie your way out of trouble by claiming that you were innocent, by repeating that lie again and again during your extensive interviews by the police … you have fallen from a great height, albeit that that is only modest mitigation given that it is a height that you would never have achieved if you had not hidden your commission of such a serious offence in the first place."
Huhne's term was reduced from nine months because he had pleaded guilty, albeit on the eve of his trial.
Both Huhne, dressed in a black suit, and Pryce, with a black jacket over a silver blouse, remained impassive as the sentences were passed. As they were led away to prison – Pryce to Holloway in north London, Huhne to Wandsworth in south London – there was still no acknowledgement between them.
Expected jail terms for conspiring to pervert the course of justice range from four months to 36 months, but the two will probably serve only two months each. Sweeney told both they would be released on licence halfway through their sentences, but the pair should qualify for earlier home detention under curfew, enforced by a tag.
The judge said Pryce had been motivated by "an implacable desire for revenge, and with little consideration of the position of your wider family". She had set about ruining Huhne's reputation while protecting her own, the judge said.
He told her she had pursued a "false defence of marital coercion.In doing so, just as you did in your dealings with the media, you have demonstrated that there is a controlling, manipulative and devious side to your nature. However, ultimately, the good sense of the jury saw through you, and you were convicted."
The events that led them to Southwark crown court in London occurred on 12 March 2003, shortly before 11.30pm, when Huhne was caught by a speed camera on the M11 returning to his south London home from Stansted airport. Facing a driving ban due to accumulated points just as he was campaigning to become the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh in Hampshire, Pryce agreed to say she was the driver.
After seven years of silence and complicity, Pryce approached newspapers about the offence when Huhne announced he was leaving her for his PR adviser, Carina Trimingham, ending a 26-year marriage.
The first former cabinet minister to be jailed since Jonathan Aitken in 1999, Huhne had pleaded guilty on what would have been the first day of his trial last month after failing in strenuous legal efforts to have the case thrown out.
Pryce, 60, had denied perverting the course of justice using the unusual defence of marital coercion, arguing that her former husband was a bully who previously pressured her over having two abortions.
After an initial trial failed to agree a verdict, a jury convicted her last week. The judge made it plain he had little sympathy, saying Pryce was "readily persuaded" to take the points for the couple's mutual benefit.
The fallout from the case has wreaked chaos on both parties' personal and professional lives. Pryce, the court was told, had stepped down from her job as head of a City consulting firm and suffers ill health. Huhne, in addition to losing his political career, is estranged from his children, a situation illustrated by a bitter and angry exchange of text messages with his youngest son, Peter, that was part of the evidence against him.
It was, as their respective barristers recounted, the details of this family breakdown in mitigation speeches that both looked the most upset. Huhne in particular appeared close to tears.
There had been speculation that Huhne might use the hearing to respond to accusations against him made by Pryce during the trials. However, his barrister, John Kelsey-Fry, told the court in his mitigation plea that Huhne wanted to spare his family further anguish, beyond rejecting the claims about the abortions "in the most strenuous terms".
"Mr Huhne has suffered the very direst consequences for this aberrant behaviour," Kelsey-Fry said. "I hope I am not overstating it when I say nobody has ever lost more, so publicly, and suffered such vilification for an offence of perverting the course of justice by points swapping."
For Pryce, Julian Knowles QC said she had endured a "truly tragic personal life" in recent years. "No wife should have to suffer what she suffered," he said.
Even 10 years on, the matter is not completely settled, with costs still to be determined by the court. The court was told that the cost of Huhne's prosecution was £79,015, and £38,544 for Pryce's. Prosecutors are also seeking an extra £31,000 from Huhne for costs connected to his attempts to get the case thrown out and the extra investigation this entailed.
While Pryce's lawyers were happy to agree on a final sum, the conduct of Huhne's defence "could properly be described as scandalous", said Andrew Edis QC, prosecuting.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Bogdan Suditu