London, Feb. 3: Prime Minister David Camerons coalition government was shaken today when criminal charges for perverting the course of justice in a speeding case were laid against Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change minister, who has been one of the top ministers in the Cameron cabinet.
Huhne, 57, immediately resigned from the government and said that he would mount a robust defence against the charges when the case comes to an initial court hearing on February 16. He will face trial with his former wife, Vicky Pryce, 59, a prominent economist. Experts said that legal precedents set in similar cases had resulted in jail terms, usually in the range of three to six months.
The case will centre on accusations that Huhne, then a member of the European Parliament, was caught exceeding the speed limit by a police camera on a motorway outside London in 2003, and falsely claimed, with his wife, that she was the driver, to avoid incurring penalty points on his driving license that could have led to an extended driving ban.
Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, told a news conference that lawyers for the service had concluded that there was sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against both Huhne and Pryce for perverting the course of justice. The case is not expected to come to trial for several months.
An investigation into the accusations has been under way since last summer by police in Essex county, site of Stansted Airport, where Huhne had landed on the day of the speeding offence on a flight from Brussels, according to accounts in British newspapers. He has denied any wrongdoing in the affair, as he did after the criminal charges were announced.
The Crown Prosecution Services decision today is deeply regrettable, he told reporters in a brief statement. I am innocent of the charges, and I intend to fight them in the courts, and I am confident that a jury will agree. He declined to answer questions.
Beyond its political reverberations, the case is tinged with personal aspects that have made it rich fodder for Britains newspapers. Police investigations into the speeding case were intensified last summer after an article in the Sunday Times in which Pryce was quoted as saying that her former husband had asked another, unnamed individual — herself, as prosecutors now allege — to take responsibility for the speeding offence.
That disclosure followed a bitter break-up of the couples 26-year marriage that saw Huhne take up a relationship with a younger woman who had previously worked as one of his political aides. Officials at the prosecution service have said that a crucial factor in the decision to lay criminal charges in the case came when the Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdochs News Corporation, reached an agreement last month with investigators to hand over a cache of emails that had passed between Pryce and the newspaper.
Although the case was a political sensation, it seemed unlikely to destabilise the Cameron government, at least in the short term. Shortly after Huhnes resignation, Cameron said Huhne would be replaced in the energy post Edward Davey. Davey, like Huhne, is a member of the Liberal Democrats, partners with the Conservatives in the coalition government.
Despite a fractious relationship during their time in government, the two parties in the coalition, with a majority in the House of Commons, have pledged to maintain their partnership until the next general election, expected in 2015.
The party leaders, Cameron for the Conservatives and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, have said differences on other policy issues will be subordinated until then to the parties common agreement on the need for harsh spending cuts to rein in a ballooning government deficit.
Still, political commentators said Huhnes resignation would have significant political repercussions within the government.
Huhne, a former financial journalist who made a multimillion dollar fortune before his full-time entry into politics as an investment analyst, has been one of the most forceful figures in the government. He has been widely credited with pushing for Britain to adopt greener policies on climate change and to take a leading role in international efforts to adopt ambitious carbon-reduction targets.