Huhne and Pryce went to jail despite their privilege, not because of it

Chris Huhne and Vicki Pryce broke an important law and, after a fair trial, got rightly sent down for roughly the right amount of time. It's as simple as that, writes Alex Andreou.

I found the obsessive media coverage of the Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce hearings quite illuminating. The extent of it was almost certainly down to the high public profile of the two players. It is, after all, a very rare pleasure to witness the actual moment when The Arrogant discover that the sun does not, in fact, shine out of their backside.

The tone of it, however, hid something much darker. As I watched broadcast after broadcast, a pattern began to emerge: Paula Harriott on Channel 4 News, having discussed the process of losing “jewellery and nice clothes”, was asked by Jon Snow: “Is it worse for a middle-class, successful professional woman?” 

“Do you think it is a case of the higher you are the harder you fall—I mean, harder for someone like yourself or Chris Huhne than someone who has been through the process before?” asked Adam Boulton of Jonathan Aitken on Sky News. The presenter and the disgraced former minister then share a joke about how the strict rules of Eton might prepare one for jail.

Lord Taylor of Warwick, jailed over expenses fraud, comments on the eight month sentence on Newsnight: “It’s not the length. It’s the going to prison that is the real punishment for people like this.” He proceeds to advise Chris Huhne to “just go down to the same level as every other prisoner.” 

The same people who demand tougher and longer sentences for people who dare even look at their BMWs, the same people who unquestioningly repeat Cameron’s “criminality pure and simple” when it comes to the 2011 riots, are full of furrowed brow worry when it concerns one of their own. These strivers, entrepreneurs, hard workers and leaders of men, are apparently in grave danger of falling apart when taken out of their greenhouse, with its carefully monitored politesse and humidity.

Explicit in these interviews, the idea that prison is somehow easy-peasy for those who have thus far had a brutally traumatised existence. This actually makes sense to these white, highly educated, middle class reporters, with six-figure salaries. If your life has been utterly shitty from birth, losing your liberty is not only unremarkable, but par for the course. If you have nothing to go back to when released, this only makes the time pass more pleasantly. Your skin is hardened, the squalid conditions natural to you, your Dickensian existence fits neatly into Holloway.

Less explicit, but no less present, is a sense of shock that people like “them” would do something like this, get caught, get convicted and end up doing time. Sarah Williams describes her shock when she got caught having convinced her mother to take her speeding points: “I’m hardly a hardened criminal: I’m a successful businesswoman, running my own marketing firm… I kept waiting for someone to say we’d been very naughty and that they hoped we’d learned our lesson, before sending us on our way. As two respectable, middle-class ladies, surely we’d be able to apologise our way out of this.” 

It is important to note that Chris Huhne already had nine points on his license (as did Sarah Williams above). A few weeks later he was caught driving while on his phone and his license suspended anyway. It could have been a little girl on her bicycle that stopped him, rather than the police. There is a compelling public interest argument in keeping people who habitually break safety rules off the road. There is a compelling public interest argument in the punishment falling on the person committing the offence. 

Impressive statistics are being wheeled out to demonstrate the insignificance of the crime. The AA estimates that thousands of people “swap points”. Well, thousands of people beat their spouses. Thousands of people drink and drive. Thousands of people dodge fares. Thousands of people evade taxes. The prevalence of a damaging practice is an argument for, not against, harsher sentences with a deterrent effect.

How many teachers, nurses or cops could we employ for the cost of the two kids sent to jail for four years for drunkenly posting an invitation to a riot which nobody attended? Who was the victim of their crime? What about the student jailed for six months for stealing water from Lidl worth £3.50? What is her future when she is released, lacking as she does Huhne’s property portfolio estimated at £4.8m? 

All these misconceived objections appear to endorse the oft quoted maxim: “the poor commit crimes; the rich just make mistakes”. The rich have much less reason to offend in the first place. They get to influence the laws which oversee their behaviour. They get access to better quality of legal advice when they do break the law. Studies consistently show that the denizens of higher socioeconomic strata get caught less often, charged less often, convicted less often, sentenced more leniently and released earlier. The deck is stacked.

We live in a country where David Laws, Liam Fox and Andy Coulson deserve second and third chances, but peaceful protesters in Fortnum & Masons are viewed as vandals; where tabloid journalists are arrested in dawn raids, but their editors by convenient appointment; where benefits “cheats” are given a prison term, but MPs defrauding the state of dozens of times the amount are just asked nicely to pay it back; where you are sent to jail for not paying a month’s worth of council tax, if you’re a nobody, but get to negotiate £4m of your tax bill, if you’re Vodafone; where the concept of personal responsibility is lauded, while that of government responsibility eroded. 

I disagree. Those who believe they are above the law, who are convinced they can manipulate the system and get away with it, are a tangible danger to others. And when they happen to be in positions of great power - whether in politics or in the media or in an investment bank – that danger is amplified. This arrogance, this hubris, this sense of invincibility conferred by position is precisely the link between the Huhne case, the financial crisis, the Savile scandal and the phone-hacking affair. 

***

Here is a thought experiment for the many experts who have offered their opinions on the outcome of the Huhne/Pryce case, readily and loudly.

Start, if you will, from the far-fetched idea that manipulating the legal system by conspiring to lie is quite a bad thing for the administration of justice and it would be desirable to avoid it. Next, consider the preposterous theory that a jury with the real responsibility of someone’s liberty in their hands—having heard hours of submissions, been privy to all the evidence, had access to every telephone recording and every email—may have arrived at a verdict more carefully considered and better informed than yours. Finally, entertain the fanciful notion that a judge, trained, skilled and experienced in such matters and following detailed guidance, may understand sentencing better than you do.

Do this and you arrive at quite a radical conclusion: Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce broke an important law and, after a fair trial, got rightly sent down for roughly the right amount of time. Not because they were privileged. Despite it. 

Supporters of Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of Chris Huhne, wait for her arrival outside Southwark Crown Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496