UK

Nick Clegg And David Cameron React To Chris Huhne Jail Sentence

11/03/2013 18:48 GMT | Updated 11/03/2013 20:18 GMT

The jailing of former energy secretary Chris Huhne is a reminder that no one, however powerful, is above the law, prime minister David Cameron has said.

Huhne's downfall was described as a "personal tragedy" by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who said he hoped that the man who challenged him for the Liberal Democrat leadership in 2007 and his former wife Vicky Pryce would be given "time and space to rebuild their lives" once they have completed their eight-month sentences.

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Mr Cameron was asked about Chris Huhne while meeting Irish president Enda Kenny in London

The comments reflected a relatively muted reaction in Westminster to the prison term handed down to the one-time MP for Eastleigh and his ex-wife.

Speaking at 10 Downing Street, Mr Cameron said: "It's a reminder that no one, however high and mighty, is out of the reach of the justice system."

A spokesman for Mr Clegg said: "As Nick has said, this is a personal tragedy for Chris, Vicky and their families.

"After their sentences are served, Nick hopes that they will both be given the time and space to rebuild their lives."

Mr Cameron, asked about the sentence at Downing Street following talks with Irish premier Enda Kenny, said: "This is a matter for the courts.

"We should listen very carefully to what the judge has said and look carefully at the sentence that has been given and recognise that that is the outcome delivered by the proper part of our constitution."

Mike Thornton, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Huhne's former constituency of Eastleigh, paid tribute to his predecessor.

Making his maiden speech during a Commons debate on banking reforms, he said: "His contribution must not be overshadowed by recent events.

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"He was a dedicated constituency MP. Throughout the constituency, I have met thousands of people who are extremely grateful for the help he has given.

"Let us not forget his outstanding service as secretary of state for energy and climate change, driving our transition to a green economy while also playing an internationally recognised role regarding fighting climate change."

Conservative MP and former solicitor general Sir Edward Garnier said it was "neither useful nor helpful" to compare the sentence handed down to Huhne and Pryce with lighter punishments for some crimes of violence or theft.

Sir Edward told BBC Radio 4's PM: "People don't seem to understand the seriousness of offences against public justice - jury tampering, perjury, interfering with witnesses and this sort of offence.

"The Court of Appeal has frequently said that this kind of offence leads to custody. No matter who you are, you are highly likely to go to prison."

But Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said he was "really quite shocked and very saddened" by the jail sentence for his friend Pryce.

Mr Portes told BBC Radio 4's PM: "I really do think it is a tragedy.

"Vicky Pryce is someone who I worked with for a long time in government, somebody who gave up a very lucrative career in the City to work as a public servant and a very distinguished public servant for 10 years. This seems to me to be harsh and unnecessary."

He added: "I cannot see how it is a sensible use of public money in austere times, or what public interest it serves, to lock Vicky Pryce up or to sentence her to eight months.

"Vicky has coped with a lot of things over her life, but particularly over the last couple of years, and I'm sure she will cope with this. I simply think it's unnecessary and seems unreasonably harsh and does not seem to be a sensible use of public money."

Former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik said the character traits which prevented Huhne from becoming party leader might have led to his downfall.

Mr Opik told the BBC News Channel: "Chris's strength is also his weakness. He's a great analyst, he is very focused and he is very intelligent, but he pays for that with a lack of emotional intelligence and there's nothing he can really do about that.

"He will not have anticipated the backlash, the consequences of the way he behaved in terms of his marriage.

"If he had been different, he probably would have become leader, because he wouldn't have alienated people."

MPs were relatively restrained in their reactions on Twitter.

Labour's John Mann tweeted: "So many ex-MPs going to jail that the Scrubs should start having inmates manufacturing red dispatch boxes."

Mr Mann added: "A woman who took the points for her 17-year-old son pleaded guilty and got more than two years last year."

Conservative vice-chairman Michael Fabricant tweeted: "Just think if Huhne had won the leadership battle against Clegg (some Lib Dems say he did) and was Dep PM. THAT would have been inconvenient."

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown said he believed there was no way back into politics for Huhne -though he could return to public life.

Asked about a comeback, he told ITV's The Agenda that he believed in redemption but added: "You never say never in politics but if I ever said never about anything I'd say it about this. I don't think so."

He went on: "I don't say he can't return to public life. He can in some form, in no doubt after a decent period in which I think an important part of that will be silence and reflection."

Lord Ashdown said Huhne probably never considered himself above the law.

"But there are many others outside politics who believe that. That is what is adequately defined as hubris.

"I think it is simply impossible to see this tragic spectacle worked out in public and if you put yourself in human mode to look at it and not feel a degree of regret, sadness and pain about somebody else's misery."