By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The inside story of how the "broken" wife of a British minister plotted to destroy his career after he left her for another woman came out in court on Thursday when the journalist at the heart of the drama gave evidence.
Isabel Oakeshott, political editor of the Sunday Times, said high-flying economist Vicky Pryce was constantly on the verge of tears over the breakdown of her marriage to politician Chris Huhne, whom she still loved, in the weeks when she plotted his downfall.
Pryce, 60, is on trial for perverting the course of justice over a 2003 incident in which she took penalty points on her driving licence for a speeding offence committed by Huhne, then a Liberal Democrat member of the European parliament.
Huhne, 58, had been charged with the same offence over the same incident. He pleaded guilty on Monday, ending a political career that had seen him rise to the rank of energy secretary in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that took office in May 2010.
Pryce has pleaded not guilty on the basis that she did take Huhne's penalty points back in 2003 but he had used "marital coercion" to make her do it.
The prosecution reject that defence. They say the way that Pryce plotted in 2011 to reveal the 2003 speeding points incident in the press, with a view to destroying Huhne's career, shows that she is a strong-minded, manipulative person and not one who could be easily bullied by her husband.
The 26-year marriage broke down in June 2010, just weeks after he became a minister, when Huhne left Pryce for bisexual public relations adviser Carina Trimingham. These events were front-page news in the British press which ran many salacious stories about Trimingham.
"This was a broken woman," Oakeshott told Southwark Crown Court, describing Pryce in 2010-2011, when Oakeshott got to know her.
"She was constantly on the verge of tears ... I got the impression that despite the way she had been treated by her husband, she was still very much in love with him."
Oakeshott said that Pryce's public persona as a high-flying professional "in suits and high heels, beautifully presented" was in fact an "armour" to hide her devastation.
Oakeshott was giving evidence at Pryce's trial because she broke the story in May 2011 that Huhne had got someone else to take speeding penalty points on his behalf in 2003.
Oakeshott's original article did not name Pryce either as the source for that information or as the person who had taken the points, in line with a written agreement between the two women reached after months of discussions.
TAPED PHONE CALL
Transcripts of emails between Pryce and Oakeshott before the story was published showed that the pair had tried very hard to find a way to expose Huhne's role in the speeding points incident while protecting Pryce, who was fully aware that she too risked prosecution if the full details came out.
"It sounds like you have a really good chance of joining the MPC ... and in the longer term even the House of Lords," Oakeshott wrote to Pryce in one email, referring to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. Oakeshott went on to tell Pryce it was not worth jeopardising all that if she could help it.
The two women tried to obtain a taped admission from Huhne in secretly recorded phone calls, but when that didn't work they agreed to get the story out by way of a long profile of Pryce that would mention the speeding points incident only in passing, as if it had come from another source and had not involved Pryce.
Concerning the events of 2003 themselves, Oakeshott said Pryce had told her that the first she knew of the speeding offence was when she received a note from police informing her that Huhne had nominated her as the driver when the car was flashed by a speed camera.
Oakeshott said Pryce said she had been furious about this and had felt Huhne had put her "in an impossible position" where her only options were to go along with his lie or expose him to the police as having lied. Her feeling was that she had been "pressurised" into accepting to take his penalty points.
The trial continues. (Reporting by Estelle Shirbon)