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Community service best punishment for Huhne

Did Chris Huhne open his eyes this morning to a split second of calm before reality came crashing in?

As he surveys the wreckage of his political career, is he wondering how it has come to this?

It must seem like a bad dream. In 2007 he came within 511 votes of being Liberal Democrat leader and could therefore have been Deputy Prime Minister. Now Mr Justice Sweeney's words point to a very different future: "You should have no illusions whatsoever as to the sort of sentence you are likely to receive."

He is facing jail. Quite right too you might think. But should you think again?

First, let's consider his crime. It wasn't breaking the speed limit 10 years ago that destroyed him. It was the flaws in his character: the arrogance of placing a small amount of damage to his reputation above honesty; his hubris in thinking he would get away with his lie.

He was reaching for the top of the political pole so the penalty points landed on the licence of his wife, economist Vicky Pryce. Her trial starts today to decide how that happened and what if any blame attaches to her. She is pleading not guilty on the grounds of marital coercion.

Huhne nearly got away with it. For seven years no-one was any the wiser. But then, within weeks of being appointed Secretary of State for the Environment, he was caught having an extra-marital affair. It is said he ended his 26-year marriage in about as many minutes – and according to one report, then played a game of squash.

He underestimated his wife. She told a newspaper he asked "someone close to him" to take the points. Now he's choking on the dish that is best served cold. Serves him right you might think. But should Mr Justice Sweeney follow through on his not-so-veiled warning to jail Huhne: should the liar be sent to prison for perverting the course of justice?

I don't think so. That's not to let him off light: by quite the opposite. His offence is serious and was compounded by his role as a law-maker. He has lied repeatedly since his offence was brought to light. He tried to have the case dismissed. Only a week ago he pleaded not guilty in court. He is being truthful only because his wriggle room has run out.

One of his defenders said on the radio yesterday: "Many, most, not all of the people in his party will be sad." That speaks volumes. Even before his admission of guilt it wasn't hard to find people with a poor opinion of his character.

His fall is reminiscent of Tommy Sheridan's conviction for perjury following his successful defamation action against the News of The World. And, of course, Jonathan Aitken who brandished the "sword of truth" until it sliced through to his perjury.

All three were too clever by half. All adhered to the philosophy of Dorothy Parker who wrote: "If what they say of you be false, never trouble to deny. If what they say of you be true, weep and storm and swear they lie."

Sheridan was jailed for three years and released after one. Aitken's time in an open prison created a new kind of celebrity. He was an adviser to other inmates and made some lasting friendships.

Since his release he has written Pride and Perjury and Porridge and Passion. He is a director of Prison Fellowship International and was chairman of the Centre for Social Justice policy study group on prison reform. Was his incarceration an example of taxpayers' money well spent? Or was it the equivalent of a free postgraduate degree from the university of life?

Keeping a man in prison costs us £30,000 to £40,000 a year. It is money well spent if the criminal is violent and the public needs protection.

But if the criminal poses no threat – if the criminal is able to turn doing time into career development as Aitken did – can't we come up with less expensive forms of punishment?

Huhne has been exposed as a liar – but prisons would be crowded beyond tolerance if everyone who dodged a speeding offence was locked up. I'm not suggesting he should get off with a fine, however hefty. He is a millionaire so handing over money won't hurt – or won't hurt enough to be a fitting punishment. No, my strong view – and I expressed it when Sheridan was sent down – is that community service would be the greater, as well as the cheaper and better, punishment.

I'm sure there are pot holes that need filled in Eastleigh, Hampshire. Let him patch them for the constituents he has let down. His resignation from Parliament has triggered a by-election in what is a marginal seat. Lib-Dem constituents could find themselves with a Conservative MP – or even one from Ukip.

There must be disabled people among them who need their gardens spruced up and homeless shelters that could use an extra cleaner. Wouldn't it be more just (and far less expensive) to put him to work on their behalf?

Looking back on other famous people who fell foul of the law, two images spring instantly to mind. One is of singer Boy George street sweeping; the other is of model Naomi Campbell turning up in couture outfits at the New York sanitation department. She too wore the orange tabard and wielded a broom. Those pictures send out a message that no-one is above the law – so apposite in this case.

Huhne has enjoyed a privileged life. His formative years took him from Westminster School, through the University of Paris to Oxford. He was a financial journalist and a member of the European Parliament, before entering Westminster. Getting his hands dirty, working with people on the front line might instil some humility.

He has spent years fending off the accusation that brought him down yesterday. Now the worst has happened, he'll want to retreat and recover. Prison offers that possibility. I'm not saying being locked up is a rest cure. But it is out of public sight. Like Aitken he'll probably be a curiosity at first and then a bit of a celebrity. He'll have time to reassess the past and regroup for the future.

But in my eyes his debt to society will be rising at a rate of £3000 a month. Mr Justice Sweeney should spare us that cost by sentencing Huhne to several years of honest toil for the public he so badly let down.

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