Isabel Oakeshott: Vicky Pryce double-crossed me

The Sunday Times journalist reveals her side of the discussions which led to the conviction of Chris Huhne and his ex-wife for perverting the course of justice.

Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times journalist who convinced Vicky Pryce to go on the record about taking Chris Huhne's speeding points, has today published her side of the story. 

Oakeshott advised Pryce to record her ex-husband discussing the points, and their lengthy email correspondence was revealed in the trial which saw Pryce convicted of perverting the course of justice. 

The email trail (which can be read in full here) is a must-read for press commentators and journalism students. It provides a rare real-life example of a senior journalist negotiating with a reluctant source to agree to publication.

Oakeshott's piece in the News Review (£) adds some fascinating detail. She was clearly well aware of Pryce's motivation in speaking to her:

It was now clear to me that Vicky had an agenda: she was out to get Chris Huhne. She didn’t need to spell it out: her willingness to show me confidential documents that mighthave revealed something compromising showed she wanted to do him damage. The more he compounded her misery by trying to pare down her divorce settlement, the more dangerous to him she was becoming.

In the emails, Pryce writes: "I just want the story out there so he has to resign." Both she and Oakeshott refer regularly to the story bringing Huhne down, or proving "fatal".

Initially, Oakeshott had convinced Pryce not to go to the Mail on Sunday, which had been chasing the story. In the emails, she refers to it as a "fairly downmarket" newspaper, and says it would seem "tawdry" to go there. She argues it would look mercenary for Pryce to accept money for the story: a reason to go with the Sunday Times, which would not pay her.

After the first story Oakeshott had negotiated with Pryce appeared in the Sunday Times - a piece which referred only to "someone" taking Huhne's points - Pryce suddenly drops out of contact with the journalist. 

That weekend I found out why: she had double-crossed me. While I was busy protecting her identity, she had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.

In Oakeshott's view, dallying with both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers was part of what led to Pryce's downfall. She had tried to get Pryce to agree to a follow-up in the Sunday Times, telling her: "I need your help. Please don't tell me what I can't write. Tell me what I CAN write."

The other controversial aspect of the case tackled by Oakeshott in her piece is News International's decision to hand over the "confidential" agreement Pryce had signed to the court, along with copies of their emails.

Handing over lengthy private email correspondence between myself and Vicky was an entirely different matter, however. I was horrified when it was requested by the police. While I do not believe those messages contained anything unprofessional, I would have chosen every word carefully if I’d known it would be for public consumption. The Sunday Times put up a vigorous fight in court. But eventually we were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.

That decision will keep journalism ethics classes in material for years. Should Oakeshott and the Sunday Times have refused to reveal their source? Or was the public interest greater in them revealing it, and both Huhne and Pryce being convicted of their crime?

Vicky Pryce. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.