On 6th March 2015 an unnamed civil servant in the Scotland Office got a phone call from a friend in the French diplomatic service, who told him some bits of things the Scotland Office might find useful: the Scotland Office is the UK government’s Scottish department for matters reserved to Westminster. This was the memo that became Project Smear in the Telegraph on 3rd April, right after the leaders’ debate.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat candidate and former MP for Orkney & Shetland: he is the only Scottish Liberal Democrat reckoned likely to hold his seat on 7th May. He is still Secretary of State for Scotland, as he has been since October 2013, as ministers retain their ministerial powers until a new government is formed. He isn’t an MP – he hasn’t been since Parliament was dissolved on Monday 30th March – but he is still the Scotland Office minister.
The LibDems are about to lose three times over on 7th May: first of all, the most optimistic forecast for the LibDems has them losing over half their MPs: the highest estimate for LibDems post election is a maybe of 36, and most likely, in the region of 27 or so. While the LibDems have been trying to tell us for years that propping up a Tory government was really the best thing for them to do, voters would appear not to agree with them.
Secondly, there’s a solid likelihood that the SNP will have more MPs after 7th May than the LibDems: the lowest estimate for the SNP is 26, and the most likely is about 42 or so. It is likely that the LibDems will lose their position as the third party in the UK – that role will be taken by the SNP. This carries with it the privilege of asking two questions each week at PMQ, and various other roles and responsibilities that the LibDems have had for decades and they will lose, and lose to the SNP.
Thirdly, it’s not likely that Labour or the Conservatives will be able to get a majority in 7th May: and the LibDems have been cheerfully counting on being in government again as the coalition partner of either Tory or Labour. Even if the LibDems had dropped to 26 or so MPs, they might still have been useful to either of the larger parties: but the presence of 40 or so SNP MPs renders the LibDems useless to the two largest parties.
So, while the general gaze has been fixed on Labour, losing what seemed to be an invulnerable block of 40 MPs, the LibDems are losing far more with the rise of the SNP: almost all of their MPs in Scotland, their role as the third party in British politics, and their dream of being in government again after May 2015.
Jo Swinson, the Scottish LibDem candidate for East Dunbartonshire, who is likely to lose the election to SNP candidate John Nicolson, writes hopefully in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday’s Election Essays of the contributions the LibDems claim to have made in government since 2010, broadbrushing over the massive destruction to the welfare system and obviously without mentioning the foodbanks. Her piece is headlined “Across much of Scotland, LibDems are the only party who can beat the SNP” which is demonstrably untrue: Scottish Labour’s decline in polling was sharp over the last 6 months, but the LibDems have been failing at the polls in Scotland since 2011.
Now, it’s important to note: the memo itself looked, to me, like a careless bit of writing that the author never intended to be seen outside the circle of people who should see it. None of it was intended to be hyperconfidential: the French Ambassador’s surprise at “the Labour v SNP political debate in Scotland as opposed to the different Westminster dynamic”, some discussion about the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris this year, a diplomatic quibble about the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs getting to meet with the French government’s EU Affairs Minister – and then finally a paragraph which reads to me like a civil servant enquiring what the French Ambassador and the First Minister discussed at their meeting, and getting a diplomatic response that tried not to cover anything genuinely confidential. As one reader noted, that part of the memo could have been taken from the Telegraph itself. The Consul-General says the memo is inaccurate: the Ambassador and the First Minister both deny the report: the author of the memo doesn’t stand by their notes on this paragraph, adding “so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation.”
The Telegraph’s splash is a bit different. Last night, when I read their account that she’d told the French ambassador that she’d prefer David Cameron to be Prime Minister, it didn’t seem right to me. Apart from anything else, the Nicola Sturgeon I know has more sense than to be so indiscreet. The paper bases its story on a memo written by a UK Government official who wasn’t even at the meeting in question and who actually doubts its veracity. It’s all very third hand and clearly questionable.
I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that SNP strategists who, after all, have winning independence as their prime objective, feel that a majority Tory government at Westminster would increase support for separation. That’s why Alex Salmond has been doing so much trolling about the SNP’s demands in a hung Parliament. He wants to scare voters in Middle England into voting Tory for “stability.” This story, however, is just so palpably questionable. It didn’t take terribly wrong for the French to deny it, either
While justly noting how bad this story is, Caron Lindsay repeats the claim both the LibDems and Labour are campaigning on – that the SNP want the Tories to win the May 2015 election. There is no evidence of this, beyond their wish for it to be so, but certainly right now the SNP are in a win-win position: Labour will need their support to govern, but if the Tories somehow manage to pull together a multi-party coalition that can outvote Labour and the SNP, the SNP are the party that will benefit most from five more years of Tory governance in Scotland, especially as this miraculous Tory-LibDem-UKIP-DUP coalition government would be unlikely to include any Scottish MPs at all. Except perhaps Alistair Carmichael.
Who wrote the memo is not all that important: who leaked the memo is the question to be answered.
On 4th April, Alistair Carmichael admitted
“I know the person involved but I’m not going to go beyond that. This is not somebody in public life, it’s a civil servant – so he’s entitled to the inquiry being done properly.”
British civil servants are required by law, by long-standing tradition, and as a condition of their employment, to remain politically neutral. They provide Civil Service support to politicians of any party that wins office. They are especially required to remain neutral for six weeks before a general election. There are specific guidelines about making announcements and deferring announcements of new policies that might help or hinder any candidate from getting elected, but the general moral principle is that no civil servant, no matter what their personal political preference, should do or say anything with information received as part of their job that could influence the results of an election.
If it was a civil servant who leaked that memo to the Telegraph, they were doing something that would ordinarily have been considered wrong, but that enters hyper levels of wrongness when done at general-election time with the deliberate intent of affecting the election results.
Alistair Carmichael claimed that he didn’t know the memo even existed until the Telegraph published it.
But, we are to believe, whoever leaked the information to the Telegraph either did it so carelessly that Alistair Carmichael was able to find out who had done it within 24 hours, or that whoever did it bravely went to their supervisor and owned up as soon as the Telegraph had published.
I believe neither scenario. If Alistair Carmichael says he knows which civil servant did it, I do believe that someone working in the Scotland Office is about to get it in the neck: but I do not believe it will be the person who is directly responsible for passing that memo to the Telegraph.
Alistair Carmichael, asked what he thought of this as an example of electioneering “dirty tricks”, said:
“These things happen from time to time. I think it’s regrettable.”
“I have no idea what Nicola Sturgeon said. We had a third-hand account of it.
“But we know Nicola Sturgeon would like to have the Conservatives in Government on their own at Westminister.
“The one thing that matters more than anything else to the Nationalists is getting independence and they would see that as an opportunity to create a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
So say the LibDems campaigning against the SNP: so says Labour, trying desperately to win seats they thought were sure. Nicola Sturgeon, having denied the allegation that she wanted a Tory government after 7th May, offered partnership with Ed Miliband against austerity.
But what if she’s not trying to maximise her advantage? What if she’s not out to embarrass Miliband? What if she’s actually on the level? What if she is genuinely worried about the entire nation, not just the bits in her purview? What if she’s trying to build a real alliance, based on a shared belief in social justice and humanity’s innate generosity? Then Westminster is really in trouble. Never mind being finessed over the Barnett formula or trounced in Dundee: that kind of politics, the party machines were built to understand. Can any of them adapt to a genuine spirit of cooperation, in which considerations of the individual ego, and that of the party, are put aside? It is unimaginable.
I’m not planning to vote SNP on 7th May. I voted Labour in 2010 and 2011. I voted No in September 2014. But I think you’d have to be ridiculously partisan, absurdly anti-SNP, not to see that Project Smear made the smearers look worse than Sturgeon.
Update, 22nd May
The official cabinet office inquiry into the leak released its report two weeks after the general election: Alistair Carmichael was the only LibDem MP to retain his seat in Scotland. The inquiry found:
Alistair Carmichael’s former special adviser Euan Roddin leaked the confidential memo to the Daily Telegraph – but he had Mr Carmichael’s permission to do so.
The leak inquiry, which was ordered by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, concluded that Mr Roddin’s official mobile phone was used to call the Telegraph journalist and that Mr Carmichael “could and should have stopped the sharing of the memo”.