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Pryce 'told editor about speeding points'

Vicky Pryce Photo: ITV Meridian

Disgraced MP Chris Huhne's ex-wife confided in a political journalist over lunch about how he had got her to take his speeding points years before, a court heard today.

Isabel Oakeshott, political editor of The Sunday Times, said Vicky Pryce told her Huhne had pressurised her into taking the points, giving her a "fait accompli".

Ms Oakeshott, who first met Pryce by chance at the Liberal Democrat party conference in 2010, shortly after her marriage to Huhne had broken down, went on to work with the economist to get the story published.

Giving evidence at Pryce's trial at Southwark Crown Court today, Ms Oakeshott said that as the pair discussed publishing the story in email conversations, it was clear to her that Pryce wanted to expose what she saw as her former husband's wrongdoing.

"Vicky was a very, very hurt woman and she was quite clear that she felt that Chris, her former husband, did not deserve to be in the position of immense responsibility that he had at that time," she said.

"I am very clear that she wanted to expose what she saw as his true character."

Ms Oakeshott said that after meeting Pryce briefly at the party conference, she made arrangements to meet her for lunch.

"Vicky Pryce had been a senior government economist so she was interesting in her own right to me for her views on the economy," she said.

"Secondly, she was at that time still married, although their relationship had disintegrated, to a cabinet minister, so I was interested in her relationship to him and how it had broken down.

"I met her for lunch in early March and we talked a bit about the breakdown of her marriage and during that conversation she mentioned to me towards the end of the meal that she had taken speeding points on behalf of her husband, she had been pressured to do that.

"Obviously that's a very serious allegation against a serving Government minister."

She said Pryce had made the allegation "slightly under her breath", and did not go into details, but mentioned it had happened in 2003.

Ms Oakeshott said Pryce was concerned about how the story might impact on her. "She is a high-flying, professional woman who is clever enough to always have in mind her own reputation, and my hope was to get her to talk openly about what had happened, no ducking or diving."

As she tried to get more details about the claims, Ms Oakeshott said Pryce told her she had been pressurised by Huhne into taking the points.

"My understanding from her was that the first she knew that a speeding offence had been committed was that she received a letter through the post addressed to her saying that she had been nominated as the driver of the vehicle which belonged to her husband," she told the court.

She said Pryce said she was shocked to get the letter as she had not been driving the car and did not know the area where it had happened.

"My understanding was that they had had a row about it and she had confronted him and asked him why on earth she had received this letter," she said.

"He had filled the form out, nominated her without any consultation about it and put her in an extremely difficult position.

"She was understandably very upset about it.

"She did not seem to have a very detailed recollection of these circumstances but she was clear she had filled in the form herself, but had been very, very unhappy about doing so and felt that she had been put into an impossible situation by doing so, and that it had been a fait accompli.

"She was very clear that he had pressurised her into signing the form and the context of that was that he risked losing his licence at that point because he had already amassed so many penalty points and he very much needed to be able to drive for his job at that time.

"It had clearly been very unpleasant and difficult and upsetting for her."

Ms Oakeshott, who was introduced to Pryce by her distant relative Lord Oakeshott, said she was impressed by her appearance at the Lib Dem conference just months after her husband left her so publicly.

Of her dealings with Pryce, she said: "I was amazed throughout my dealings with her that she was constantly on the edge of tears.

"It took very, very little to tip her into a tearful condition."

She said Pryce's image of a businesswoman wearing high heels and a suit was a sort of "armour" for her.

Ms Oakeshott added: "This was a broken woman, her marriage had collapsed in the most dramatic and horrible of circumstances and she was clearly absolutely devastated over it, no doubt about that.

"I got the impression that despite how she had been treated by her husband she was still very much in love with him, and it was really a terrible time."

After their first lunch on March 1, Ms Oakeshott and Pryce discussed via email about how they could publish the story.

"My focus was very much exposing a politician for having broken the law, not on whether or not there was an exciting story," Ms Oakeshott said.

"It was my job as a journalist to hold our politicians to account."

She told the court she was keen to know who else knew about the allegations, especially rival journalists.

The pair discussed options for getting the story out, including plans by Pryce to write a book about her marriage break-up, but Ms Oakeshott thought the better option was a serialisation in the Sunday Times.

She said it was Pryce's idea to try and record Huhne admitting to the offence but their efforts - heard by the jury on Tuesday - had not produced a clear admission.

Ms Oakeshott described how Pryce wavered in how she wanted to proceed: "Ms Pryce was in a very fragile state, she was very, very upset about the break-up of her marriage.

"One day she would be feeling strong and very determined about a course of action, and then another day she would not be feeling so good.

"She was not sure whether she wanted the allegation to be out there in the public domain and I was not in any way trying to push her to do it."

She added: "Vicky Pryce is a very, very educated, intelligent woman and I am sure she was aware that it was potentially an offence, and I think that has played on her conscience for a long time ever since and I think it was very, very difficult for her."

The pair agreed that the Sunday Times would run a piece on Pryce as a high-flying professional woman, her role as a political wife and would drop in queries about Westminster rumours about the points.

The pair drafted a written agreement about the story, aimed at limiting the risk of Pryce being prosecuted, but Ms Oakeshott said she had clearly explained there was still a risk.

Ms Oakeshott described the "hue and cry" after the story was published on May 8, 2011, and said she was under pressure to run another story.

In one email, she urged Pryce not to get "into a lather" about her requests for a follow-up story,

She said: "Vicky's emotions would go up and down a lot and sometimes, particularly quite late at night, she would become very anxious and very emotional.

"I didn't want to set her off and upset her in any way."

But Ms Oakeshott said after the story was published, Pryce later severed all contact with her.

She said she did not doubt that Pryce's story was true and that if she had made something up, she doubted it would be something that incriminated herself, and if it was, it would be something "better than that".

Asked about Mr Huhne, Ms Oakeshott described him as "ferociously ambitious" and a "very controversial figure" in Westminster.

She said she could see Pryce's motives for wanting to get the story out, saying: "I think she felt the voters ought to know the true character of her husband.

"It's quite clear from the email correspondence that she was also slightly vengeful."

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