Downfall of a Minister who could face jail

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A NINE-month police probe has brought an end to Chris Huhne’s Cabinet career and left him facing the prospect of jail.

Mr Huhne, who has twice failed in bids to become Liberal Democrat leader, insisted he would clear his name after becoming the third coalition Minister to quit the Cabinet by standing down as Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer made his decision to quit all but inevitable after appearing before the cameras at 10am yesterday to announce Mr Huhne and ex-wife Vicky Pryce are both being charged with perverting the course of justice, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The charge relates to allegations that Mr Huhne persuaded her to take his penalty points for a speeding offence in 2003, when he was an MEP and his car was allegedly caught by a speed camera on the motorway between Stansted Airport in Essex and London.

Announcing his decision, Mr Starmer said: “All the available evidence, including the new material, has now been carefully considered by the CPS and we have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce for perverting the course of justice.”

The accusations of wrongdoing emerged after Mr Huhne’s 26-year marriage ended in 2010 as a result of his affair with PR adviser Carina Trimingham. Ms Pryce told The Sunday Times last year that her ex-husband had asked “someone” to take the penalty on his behalf to avoid losing his driving licence.

Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce were interviewed by Essex Police detectives before the case was handed to the CPS, but a decision on possible prosecutions was delayed by a court battle to obtain key emails from the newspaper.

Having learned of the decision shortly before Mr Starmer’s statement, Mr Huhne, 57, announced afterwards that he would quit the Cabinet but insisted he was innocent and vowed to mount a “robust defence”. Ms Pryce, a prominent economist, told the BBC she hoped for a “quick resolution” to the case.

In a letter to his former leadership rival, Mr Clegg said: “I fully understand your decision to stand down from Government in order to clear your name, but I hope you will be able to do so rapidly so that you can return to play a key role in Government as soon as possible.”

However, the Prime Minister made no mention of a possible return in his own letter accepting Mr Huhne’s resignation, saying only: “Like the Deputy Prime Minister, I am sorry to see you leave the Government under these circumstances and wish you well for the future.”

With weeks of speculation over whether the pair would be charged, Downing Street had had plenty of opportunity to discuss how to handle the fall-out, allowing David Cameron and Mr Clegg to carry out a prompt reshuffle limited to Lib Dem Ministers.

Mr Cameron, who learned of the decision at 9.10am and took a call from Mr Huhne offering his resignation at 10.40am, said later during a visit to Plymouth: “I think Chris Huhne has made the right decision, given the circumstances.”

Mr Huhne is the third Cabinet Minister – and the second senior Lib Dem – to be forced out since the formation of the coalition in 2010, following David Laws and Liam Fox.

His departure will be rued by Lib Dems on the left of the party, who saw him as one of the Ministers most able to stand up for their values against Conservatives in Cabinet. He was involved in particularly fierce clashes with the Tories during the referendum campaign on voting reform last year.

One of the few Lib Dems with a significant national profile, his relationship with Mr Clegg has been tested at times, not least when the two were competing for the leadership in 2007 and Mr Huhne’s aides were accused of compiling a “calamity Clegg” dossier to attack his rival.

Environmentalists voiced dismay at the loss of what Greenpeace described as “a vocal advocate for the green agenda in a Government whose green credentials are looking more than a little tarnished”. He recently pressed for a new climate change treaty to reduce global emissions and has championed renewable energy, while also resisting Lib Dem opposition to pave the way for an expansion of nuclear power as well.

Last night Labour called on Mr Huhne to forfeit a £17,207 payment he is entitled to for leaving the Cabinet. Downing Street said the decision was down to Mr Huhne.