Secret tape puts heat on Huhne
From the Sunday Times, what and idiot.
Isabel Oakeshott, Kate Mansey and Simon McGee
CHRIS HUHNE, the energy secretary, tried to persuade a witness not to talk to the media about claims that he lied to police over a speeding offence.
A secret tape recording of the secretary of state reveals he repeatedly urged the witness not to discuss the allegations.
In the recording, which was passed to The Sunday Times, the minister said: “If I were you … do not talk. I would have thought you would not want to talk.”
Huhne is fighting for his political life over claims that he avoided a driving ban by pressuring somebody close to him to accept penalty points on their licence on his behalf.
In an interview in The Sunday Times last week, his estranged wife, Vicky Pryce, broke her silence over the allegations, which have been circulating in Westminster for weeks, saying: “Yes, he did.”
In an 11-minute tape recording, obtained legally, the energy secretary can be heard warning the witness not to discuss the matter over the telephone. “I honestly don’t think, I really don’t think, that it is sensible to have these sorts of conversations over the phone,” he says and repeatedly suggests a face-to-face meeting.
He warns that “the last thing” the witness wants is a “half-baked story” appearing in The Sunday Times prompting a police investigation.
During the conversation, Huhne repeatedly emphasises that the witness is the only person who can “stand the story up”.
“There is no way, there is no way, that there is any evidence for this story, unless you decide to give some legs to it by saying something. Okay?” he says.
Huhne expresses confidence that journalists do not have enough material to incriminate him, and counsels the witness on how to dodge calls from the media, saying: “Just say, oooh, terribly bad line, terribly sorry, bad reception, I’ll talk to you later — and hang up.”
Last night the minister’s future looked increasingly uncertain as police confirmed they are ready to launch a formal inquiry into the allegations. It follows an official complaint to Essex police by Simon Danczuk, a Labour MP.
Danczuk said: “I was extremely concerned to read the allegations about Mr Huhne and his apparent attempt to avoid a driving ban.
“They suggest potentially criminal behaviour by someone in high office and I think they need to be looked at properly by the police to establish the facts, one way or the other. I would think Mr Huhne would welcome the opportunity to get the facts out into the open.”
So far, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, has stood by the embattled minister, who is MP for Eastleigh in Hampshire. But Huhne is likely to come under pressure from political opponents to resign now the police are involved.
Danczuk said: “Since the allegations are about serious criminal behaviour, I think it is only right that Mr Huhne stands aside from his position in the cabinet while the investigation is conducted.”
Falsely naming another driver to avoid penalty points is a criminal offence that can lead to a prison sentence.
Police may interview Pryce, who told The Sunday Times last week that her estranged husband “drove like a maniac”.
Essex police have already begun a search for pictures from the speed camera involved. A formal inquiry would pursue additional lines of investigation.
The allegations relate to a speeding offence on March 12, 2003, when Huhne was an MEP. On the day in question, a car regularly driven by him was involved in a speeding offence coded SP30, which relates to exceeding a statutory speed limit on a public road, which can include a dual carriageway.
As the registered owner of the vehicle involved, Huhne was sent a document asking whether he was driving at the time.
He is alleged to have entered another person’s name on the form, without consulting them.
The individual then received a penalty notice from police and is said to have agreed to accept three points on their licence for the offence. The routine offence was dealt with by Chelmsford magistrates.
Huhne’s spokesman has repeatedly claimed that the allegations are “unfounded”.
The Sunday Times has established that Huhne began the day in question at the European parliament while it was sitting in Strasbourg. Records show that he took part in votes on cross-border pension funds, biofuels and fishing rules. He did not clock in to the European parliament the next day.
Aides say he routinely left European parliamentary sittings on a Wednesday evening,catching a flight to Stansted airport in Essex, the county where the speeding offence occurred.
A former member of his team said: “Chris usually flew Ryanair back to Stansted on a Wednesday or Thursday. Then he would either drive home, or to an event in the southeast where he had been invited to speak on policy issues.”
The aide said Huhne may have been travelling across the country to give a talk when he was caught speeding.
The person Huhne allegedly identified as the driver was at work in central London on the day in question and attended a high-profile conference.
At the time of the incident, Huhne was attempting to switch his career from Brussels to Westminster by becoming the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Eastleigh.
A driving ban would have been hugely inconvenient as he campaigned for selection, a process that involved attending multiple events in the constituency. The Huhne family was then based in a townhouse in Clapham, south London.
A ban would also have seriously hampered his work as an MEP for the sprawling South East England European constituency, which ranges from the Isle of Wight up to Oxfordshire and across to the Kent coast. His wife has told how, after he later did lose his licence over unconnected matters, she “spent months” driving him around.
If the allegations are proved, Huhne could be guilty of fraud or perverting the course of justice.
Nick Freeman, the solicitor known as “Mr Loophole” for getting celebrity motorists off driving offences, said: “This type of offence attacks the foundation of our judicial system because it is entirely dependent on people’s integrity. What may seem like a trivial offence, a speeding ticket, becomes very serious when people lie about it.”
He said someone with previous good character who was found guilty of perverting the course of justice by passing penalty points on to another driver could expect a jail term of between three to six months.
Paradoxically, Huhne, who made a fortune in the City, is a former director of a firm that pioneered speed cameras and mobile CCTV systems used by police forces. He resigned from his post at Traffic Safety Systems in December 2003, soon after he was banned from driving.
A spokesman for Essex police said: “We can confirm we have received an email regarding a speeding offence in 2003. This information will be passed to officers who will decide on whether an investigation will be launched. We take allegations such as this extremely seriously.”