The former British cabinet minister Chris Huhne faces political ruin – and a spell behind bars – as the result of his lies over something as trivial as a motoring violation. The one-time energy secretary and former leadership hope of his party, the Liberal Democrats, will not be the first such high-profile figure to have driven, for want of a better word, into more trouble than he could ever have imagined by simply failing to tell the truth.
Huhne’s experience is typical of politicians for whom the initial offence is often in itself not the career-breaker. Instead, it seems to be a heady and most unpalatable cocktail of vanity, arrogance, willful ignorance and deceit that proves to be the undoing. Losing your driving licence for repeated speeding would be embarrassing, certainly, for a man in the public eye, but nowhere near as damaging as revealing a tissue of lies, subterfuge and dishonesty, culminating with a conviction for perverting the course of justice.
When will these powerful – and ever more power-hungry – men and women learn from the histories, diaries and biographies that they so willingly profess to read about the nature of political self-destruction?
Tricky Dick wrote the book. When the “smoking gun” Watergate tapes contradicted Richard Nixon’s pledge that there would be “no whitewash at the White House”, as well as his declaration that he was “not a crook”, it proved far more damaging than an early admission of guilt might have done. However bad collusion in breaking-and-entering may have proved, even for some very senior figures in the Nixon administration, the president himself had a decent chance at serving out his second term without fear of impeachment, or the humiliation of media vilification.
Britain has its own stars of political suicide. My favourite? Jonathan Aitken, the erstwhile Tory minister who challenged his accusers' claims that he had been involved in shady deals with the Saudis, thus: “If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it.” Four years later? Aitken was jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice.
Aitken was a similar vintage to Jeffrey Archer, another Tory who booked himself in for a significant holiday at the grey-bar hotel by perjuring himself during a long, expensive and only temporarily successful court case relating to his relationship with a prostitute. You might have thought that, as the author of a number of inexplicably successful thrillers, Archer might have been slightly more aware of the pitfalls and perils of the porky pie: they always get you in the end.
Chris Huhne is the latest to find this out the hard way. He was a heavyweight player in the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition and one of his party’s Big Beasts, stalking the top job after an illustrious career in journalism and success in the City via the Sorbonne and Oxford.
Now he’ll have a lengthy stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure to consider whether, as some seasoned watchers of politics would have warned him, if only he had listened: you’re better off coming clean instead of digging deeper and deeper into the dirt.
Tom Edwards is Monocle 24's news editor