LONDON – It was just a speeding ticket.
But a British politician's need for speed, and what he did next, now look like acts of hubris that have destroyed a family and a political career and may end in prison — with the whole saga played out before an appalled and fascinated country.
Newspaper front pages and TV news bulletins are full of the case of Chris Huhne, a politician who was caught speeding in his BMW one night in 2003. It was not his first offense, and any more penalty points meant he would lose his license. So his wife, Vicky Pryce, told police she had been behind the wheel.
And there it lay, a festering family secret, for almost a decade, until a bitter divorce sparked a chain of events that landed both Huhne and Pryce in court, and put their family traumas — complete with expletive-filled arguments and profane text messages — in the headlines.
Huhne, an ambitious and hard-working Liberal Democrat, was made Energy Secretary in the coalition government that came to power in 2010. Many considered him a future leader of his party. The same year, he left Pryce for another woman, and after that reports of the speeding-ticket swap hit the news — leaked, prosecutors say, by Pryce herself as an act of revenge.
"I really want to nail him," Pryce wrote in an email to a journalist.
Nail him she did, prosecutors say — but she trapped herself in the process.
After allegations of the speeding-ticket swap were published in 2011, prosecutors charged both Pryce and Huhne with perverting the course of justice, which usually carries a sentence of between four months and three years in jail.
Huhne, 58, protested his innocence for months, but switched to a last-minute guilty plea this week as his trial was due to start, and resigned from Parliament. He will be sentenced a later date.
Pryce, 60, has pleaded not guilty — claiming she was coerced by her husband — and is standing trial at London's Southwark Crown Court. The hearings have quickly become the courtroom version of a daytime talk show — a story of powerful, successful people with all-too human frailties.
Pryce, an Athens-born economist who has worked as a senior advisor to both private sector and government, claims that during their 25-year marriage Huhne was a domestic bully who pressured her into lying about the speeding ticket.
Pryce, immaculately dressed and soft-spoken in the witness box, apologized to the jury for a series of profanity-laden phone calls between her and Huhne that were played in court.
"I am a fiery Greek," she said.
Pryce painted Huhne as a "very driven, very ambitious" man with a "strong, bullying character."
"You know what politicians are like," she said.
She described a strong but stormy marriage that began to break down after the speeding-ticket episode.
It occurred during a political campaign; Pryce said Huhne told her that "his whole political career would be destroyed" if he lost his license.
Pryce said she refused to lie, but sometime later received a letter from police identifying her as the car's driver, which she had to sign and return.
Pryce said she "exploded" but eventually caved in and signed the form.
"I had no choice," she said. "It looked like a complete fait accompli."
Pryce said the episode was a nagging issue in the marriage right up to the point in 2010 when Huhne left her for his PR adviser, Carina Trimingham.
Pryce said the split left her "in deep shock and very, very, very depressed," but denied she had sought revenge. She admitted telling a journalist the story of the speeding ticket swap, but said she later felt "ashamed and upset" about it.
Pryce's trial is due to conclude next week. But already, the level of personal detail revealed has made some observers uncomfortable.
Pryce sounded close to tears in court Thursday as she recalled how Huhne pressured her into having an abortion when she became pregnant in 1990, "which I have regretted ever since."
Evidence has included recordings of the couple's expletive-laden phone calls — repeatedly endlessly on TV — and furious text messages from the couple's 18-year-old son to his father.
"We all know that you were driving and you put pressure on Mum," said one.
Others were blunter: "I don't want to speak to you, you disgust me, (expletive) off."
Tim Black, writing in online political magazine Spiked, said it was hard not to feel sorry for the whole family, whose crisis, "in all its mundane, intimate cruelties ... has now exploded into the public realm."
"Huhne's fall has been the stuff of soap opera, not politics," he said.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless