x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tragedy of politician's downfall is he didn't see it coming

The fall of British politician Chris Huhne may read like a Greek tragedy, but his is a script too often repeated by modern power brokers.

Anyone seeking classical resonances in the tragic tale of British politician Chris Huhne and his recent fall from grace is currently spoiled for choice. For such are the parallels between his story and Greek mythology that it's almost a surprise to learn his parents were called Peter and Anne rather than Oedipus and Jocasta.

Though even here, karmic justice can be readily imagined: it turns out that his mother was once the voice of the UK Speaking Clock, the telephonic timepiece by which you could (literally) set your watch.

The sands of time have certainly run out for Mr Huhne who, by dint of a simple transgression some years ago (and without thought for the consequence), now finds his life in ruins, his only prospect a lengthy prison sentence. Icarus, the mythic Greek who flew too near the sun and plummeted to his death as a result of his hubris, now looks to have got away relatively unscathed by comparison.

Up until a few short weeks ago, Mr Huhne was emperor of all he surveyed. A politician of formidable intellect and even more formidable self-belief, the secretary of state for energy and climate change was one of the few big hitters in the current coalition government.

Although his party, the Liberal Democrats, were the minor partner in the unwieldy union with the majority Conservatives, Mr Huhne had forged an impressive reputation as one of the few members of the government prepared to speak his mind around the cabinet table and, when occasion demanded, even tweak the prime minister's metaphorical nose.

As in all classical tragedies, the cause of his downfall was exquisitely trivial. Back in 2003 while driving home from the airport, his car had been photographed travelling above the speed limit. By itself this wouldn't normally be a resignation issue, except that the resulting penalty points on his licence would have been sufficient to trigger both an automatic driving ban and a good deal of adverse publicity.

So it was that he hatched a plot with his wife of 26 years, the economist Vicky Pryce, whereby she would claim to have been the offending driver and soak up the points, allowing him to retain his licence. If all had been well between them the deception might never have been uncovered. And indeed, as far as Ms Pryce was concerned, everything was well. But that was before Mr Huhne subsequently embarked on a clandestine liaison with an aide. When he eventually confessed the affair to his wife (about 30 seconds before the story broke in a national newspaper) it was like setting a match to a bonfire.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," said the English playwright William Congreve. And once Mr Huhne's infidelity was exposed there was only ever going to be one means by which Ms Pryce would wreak her revenge.

Thus even as Mr Huhne continued to deny the previous deception, Ms Pryce confirmed her husband's machinations in a series of meetings with a leading journalist, during which she admitted her only object was "to nail him". The result has been the destruction of one of the UK's most gifted politicians. From being a hair's breadth away from the very seat of power, Mr Huhne has no marriage, no career, no relationship with his children, and now, no parliamentary constituency (he resigned his seat after the subsequent firestorm).

Indeed, both he and Ms Pryce are facing the possibility of a custodial sentence on the charge of perverting the course of justice.

While the country at large has little sympathy for the fallen hero, some Westminster commentators have expressed tacit understanding for Mr Huhne, not so much for his stupidity but for his very mindset. They point out that those who are attracted to politics as a profession are often preternaturally disposed to believe they are somehow above the reach of those whom they govern.

My favourite illustration of this deep karmic tendency is the ancient fable of a scorpion that begs a frog for a ride across a pond. "If I let you climb on my back you'll sting me," counters the frog. The scorpion gives the frog his word of honour and having won the frog's trust, is safely transported. Yet no sooner has it reached the other side than it sinks his lethal tail into the frog's neck.

Why did you do that?" asks the dying frog. The scorpion's answer would surely resonate with many politicians.

"It's in my nature," it replies.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins