Chris Huhne may be a high-profile idiot, but he’s not
the first of his kind, and it’s as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow that
he won’t be the last.
A couple of years back, Clive James wrote (rather
movingly) about a case involving a senior Australian judge that shares many
aspects of the Huhne affair. The judge,
Marcus Einfeld, aged 70, permanently lost his career and his reputation when he
was caught trying to avoid a speeding ticket that would have cost him the
temporary loss of his driving licence.
Oh, and a fine equal to £36.
The judge was at the peak of his profession, admired
in legal circles abroad as well as in Australia – the recipient of a United
Nations Peace Award for his record of defending the helpless and underprivileged
– and regarded even outside his profession as un home serieux, having been named an Australian Living Treasure.
That he was a man of high intelligence goes without
saying – which makes his actions following the receipt of the speeding ticket
all the more remarkable.
Einfeld’s initial response was to claim that someone
else had been driving the car – a friend, Eileen Brennan, a professor. The ploy was successful: the case was
dismissed and Einfeld walked – or perhaps drove – free. Unfortunately, he had made an elemental error
of judgement. Brennan was traced by a suspicious
reporter, whose attempt to elicit a comment from her fell on deaf ears. This was not because she declined to be
associated with the lie, which would have been understandable, but for a far
more explicable reason: at the time the speeding incident occurred, Brennan had
already been dead for three years.
Einfeld, as James pointed out, might, even after this
blunder, have extracted himself from the hole he had started to dig. But he continued to wield the shovel, and the
hole was soon a pit in which he was up to his armpits, having claimed that he
did not mean that Brennan but another
friend of the same name. And when that ruse was in turn exposed, he
proceeded to invent a whole series of lies, each one more preposterous than the
last. Eventually, in desperation, he
involved his own mother. Now, his mum might
well have been perfectly willing to support an errant son, as mothers sometimes
do, except that it emerged that CCTV footage proved that she and her car had
never left her garage on the day in question.
The good judge – national treasure and friend of the
downtrodden — was now exposed for the compulsive liar he had become. He was duly convicted of perjury and
committed to a long stretch in prison.
The thought process of Huhne – a cabinet minister of
the coalition and a prime candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrat
party should the government ever fall – followed the same pattern as that of
Einfeld. And for the same motive: he did
not want additional points on his licence because that would mean a driving
ban. So, he conjured up the same plea of
innocence: he had not driven the speeding car – his wife had been at the
There the matter might have rested – as it did for
nearly ten years – but then Huhne made an unrelated but consequential decision
that would hasten the unraveling of his defence. He decided to seek a divorce from his wife,
having taken up with an office colleague, a woman of ill-defined sexual
preferences, despised by the family as a home-wrecker.
Having been all along roundly condemned by family and
friends for exposing his wife to perjury, not least by their son Peter, who
disowned him, he could no longer count on their cooperation. A reporter for a Sunday newspaper, tipped off
by person or persons unknown – whose identity can be presumed – started to probe
the false alibi. Before long Huhne, his prosecutors,
now alert to the deception, were desperately defending the indefensible with
explanations of ever wilder improbability.
When his day in court arrived, as a co-defender with
his estranged wife, he finally gave up the fight and pleaded guilty. Like Einfeld, his career is now over. He has resigned his parliamentary seat. He will moreover go to jail for a term that
will be determined not so much for the original offence but for having led the
prosecution and the court an expensive dance.
His wife faces a custodial sentence, too. But as a wronged woman, and one who had
admitted her role as accessory, her punishment may not be as infused with
retribution as his.
Two careers destroyed, and for a short driving
disqualification and a few pounds.
The message is clear to everyone but the miscreants
themselves, who, like Einfeld and Huhne, convince themselves that their
positions or reputations represent the first line of plausible defence,
regardless of the evidence. It is that
judges and politicians are among those public figures whose downfall, if they
abuse their high office, will most delight both press and public. And quite right, too.
Einfeld’s case may be assigned a tragic element. Huhne demands no such sympathy. As a politician, his ambitions were tinged
with unscrupulous arrogance – he was said to be heartily disliked by his cabinet
and parliament colleagues – and as a husband, he was an exploitive cad, who
came to be heartily despised by his family.
It is little surprise, then, that his comeuppance is
being heartily applauded. Idiots might
expect mercy; arrogant idiots can expect none.