The UK press this week has been obsessed with the story of Liberal Democrat MP and ex Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne who resigned his position after pleading guilty to a charge of Perverting the Course of Justice. For our international readers (UK readers can skip to the next paragraph) Huhne was caught by a speed camera in 2003, but his wife agreed to say that she was driving the car, and the speeding penalty points were allocated to her instead of him. As a result he didn't lose his driving licence, although ironically just a few weeks later he did after being caught driving whilst talking on his mobile phone. In 2010, after press revelations that he was having an affair, his wife left him and in a fit of pique she told the police of the events seven years earlier. He was arrested, but strenuously denied the charge and used every legal device available to get the case dropped. He failed, and when the case came to court last Monday he finally admitted his guilt. The judge has indicated that he can expect a prison sentence.
More interesting for me is the continuing trial of his wife Vicky Pryce, also charged with Perverting the Course of Justice - it takes two to agree to lie about who was driving the car. Her defence is 'marital coercion'; that her husband unreasonably forced her to agree to commit the crime, that she did it under duress (although the legal defence of duress is differently defined).
The question which screams out for me is 'Which bit of any relationship does not involve coercion???' Coercion is just another form of persuasion, and most of us experience persuasive tactics from our partners, at work and at home, from our friends, our spouses, our children, our bosses, our suppliers and our customers all the time. If Vicky Pryce was claiming that her husband used or threatened physical violence, or blackmail, or some other such extreme behaviour then our sympathy for her might be stronger. But this is a woman of high intellect and forceful personality, and I suspect that her coercability factor is very low.
We will probably never know the details of the conversation that occurred over the breakfast table the day the speeding fine notice from Essex police came through their letter box in 2003. But if they had been typical negotiators I'd like to imagine it as follows:
Huhne: 'Oh sh*t. They're doing me for speeding. Bloody police. That'll be my licence gone for a few months.' Pause. 'Unless……..''
Pryce: 'Unless what?'
Huhne: 'Three more penalty points for me puts me over the limit and I get disqualified. But if you could say that you were driving, and you get the points, you still won't be over the limit. Problem solved.'
Pryce: 'Drop dead Chris. Why would I possibly agree to that?'
Huhne: 'I could make it worth your while. How about I take you for a very expensive dinner?'
Huhne: 'You choose where we go on holiday this year?'
Huhne: 'We'll spend Christmas with your family?'
Pryce: 'Look Chris. All this doesn't add up to a bundle of sticks. If you seriously want to negotiate a deal involving an illegal activity, conspiracy, and perverting the course of justice, then I want something realistic back in return. Like your scrotum on a plate.'
Huhne (sighs): 'Oh well, it was worth a try. I'll just have change tactics and go for a spot of marital coercion'.
And so on……
If only Chris Huhne had been a better negotiator!!
Stephen White, Managing Partner