Top politician and wife brought low by lies

Family split: Chris Huhne and ex-wife Vicky Pryce arrive separately at court © Getty Images

He was once a cabinet minister, and very nearly leader of a political party. Now Chris Huhne is a disgraced ex-MP facing jail. Why would he risk everything for the sake of a lie?

It was a moment of high drama. After ten years spent maintaining an elaborate lie, Chris Huhne, a millionaire former minister who once aspired to high office, shocked a courtroom and the political world by unexpectedly pleading ‘guilty’ to perverting the course of justice.

In March 2003, his then-wife Vicky Pryce, herself a prominent economist, agreed to pretend she had been at the wheel of Mr Huhne’s speeding car to save him from losing his driving licence. Both could now face a prison sentence for the cover-up.

Why has it taken this long to establish the truth? The reasons are complex and sad. In 2011 a tabloid newspaper exposed an extramarital affair that Mr Huhne, at that time a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister in the coalition government, was having with a staff member. In revenge for his decision to end their 26 year marriage, Ms Pryce revealed to journalists that he had once coerced her into taking points for that driving offence all those years earlier.

The couple’s children had to cope with the affair, the divorce and then their parents trying to destroy each other in public: ‘I definitely want to nail him,’ Ms Pryce emailed to The Sunday Times. This week, a series of text messages between Mr Huhne and one of his sons, revealing a complete breakdown in relations, were used as evidence and published for the world to pore over.

Why would such a successful man risk his career, his chances of warm family relationships and his public reputation? If he was lying to cover up a theft or an even more serious crime, perhaps the fateful decision to lie would have seemed more understandable. But speeding alone would not have destroyed his reputation: it was the deception that undid him.

Perhaps, much as we might like to think otherwise, we have more in common with Mr Huhne that we think. Many commentators have focussed on his arrogance. These qualities may indeed make the case unusual. But researchers have found that the typical person tells an average of 1.5 lies every day. Some just smooth our path through life: ‘that was delicious,’ for example. But some are more destructively self-serving.

Universal guilt?

Rightly or wrongly, politicians have a reputation for what one of their number famously dubbed ‘being economical with the truth.’ So some people, with a cynical shrug, will say of Chris Huhne: ‘It’s no surprise, what do you expect from someone ruthless enough to get so close to the very top?’

But might there be something else behind the mixed reactions? Perhaps the headlong descent of Chris Huhne draws us in because we all practice deceit about something, big or small, and we fear discovery.

You Decide

  1. Is lying to cover up a speeding offence trivial or serious?
  2. ‘The ever-present possibility of deceit is a crucial dimension of all human relationships, even the most central: our relationships with ourselves.’ What does thisphilosophermean and is he right?

Activities

  1. Write your own headline and short news report about this story: are you more interested in the politics, the family drama or the moral dilemma?
  2. Research what psychologists and social scientists know about why human beings lie.

Some People Say...

“Always tell the truth, it’s much easier to remember.’ David Mamet (after Mark Twain)”

What do you think?

Q & A

I was brought up never to lie.
True. Most children are taught that ‘fibbing’ is bad, whether it’s through the story of Pinocchio or some other moral fable. That’s to develop a strong inner moral compass to identify instinctively what is right and wrong. But are we all impeccably (brutally) honest all of the time?
OK I get it, but I only tell harmless ‘white lies.’
Are you sure? One person’s serious falsehood could be another person’s idea of just trying to have a quiet life. Lying about a speeding offence is serious, so is evading your fare on on a bus or tube, but a lot of people do it. And are you always frank with yourself?

Word Watch

Chris Huhne
In 2007 Mr Huhne was narrowly beaten in the election to be Liberal Democrat leader by Nick Clegg, and was often talked about as a possible future leader. Originally an award-winning business journalist, he made his fortune in the City.
Perverting the course of justice
This offence carries a maximum life sentence for conspiring to cover-up a serious crime. But even a deception of this level usually results in imprisonment. Sentencing takes into account the original offence, the persistence of the cover up, and its effect.
Driving licence
Mr Huhne already had nine penalty points for previous offences when his car was observed on the M11 travelling at 69 mph in a 50mph zone.
1.5 lies every day
This figure was arrived at by American academic and psychologist Bella de Paulo.
Philosopher
David Livingstone Smith, is a philosopher and evolutionary psychologist, and author of Why We Lie.

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