Alistair Carmichael has been the LibDem MP for the Orkney and Shetland constituency since 2001. It’s been a distinguished constituency for the Liberal Party for over sixty years.
BBC News – Nick Clegg: The choice is me, Salmond or Farage http://t.co/VtW4mnpfY2
— Alistair Carmichael (@acarmichaelmp) April 15, 2015
In 1950, Jo Grimond won the Orkney and Shetland constituency for the Liberal Party (defeating Sir Basil Neven-Spence, whose family had owned land in Shetland for generations and who had been the Unionist MP for twenty years). Grimond was one of nine Liberal MPs elected in 1950, and he was to hold his seat for thirty-three years: he stepped down in 1983. Jim Wallace succeeded him, and Alistair Carmichael succeeded Wallace in 2001. Jim Wallace went on to become the LibDem MSP for Orkney until 2007, when he was succeeded by Liam McArthur: Shetland has had one MSP since 1999, Tavish Scott. Jim Wallace and Tavish Scott were each at one time leaders of the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party, and Jo Grimond was twice leader of the Liberal Party. Alistair Carmichael is deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and was Secretary of State for Scotland from 7th October 2013 to 8th May 2015.
“A LibDem, a Labour, and a Tory MP walk into a bar. Oh, says the bartender, this must be Scotland.”
The last time the Orkney and Shetland elected a parliamentary representative who wasn’t a Liberal / LibDem was in 1945 (Sir Basil Hamilton Hebden Neven-Spence, as one would expect, was standing for the Unionist Party). Orkney and Shetland local councillors are invariably independents.
The LibDems have had worse elections than in 2015, though not for some time. In 1951, Jo Grimond was one of only six Liberal MPs in the Commons: but from 1956 onwards there were nine, from 1966 twelve – and apart from a 10-month dip in 1974, they were never again in single figures until 7th May, 2015: when Alistair Carmichael beat the SNP surge by 817 votes.
Alistair Carmichael said (the Shetland Times reported)
it had been “quite a remarkable election campaign”. He congratulated the SNP on quite a remarkable political achievement. “We truly live in remarkable political times in Scotland.
He said it was a tremendous privilege to retain the seat and thanked the voters of Orkney and Shetland.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he was relieved and delighted that Mr Carmichael had retained his seat and held off “the Tsunami” of SNP support that had been shown on Mainland Scotland.
But then there’s Euan Roddin, former Special Adviser to Alistair Carmichael at the Scotland Office. Sometime between 6th March and 3rd April, the Frenchgate memo was passed to Roddin, and Roddin decided, he told the Cabinet Office investigators, that leaking the memo was in the public interest, as “the public needed to be aware of the position attributed to the First Minister”.
Euan Roddin says, and Alistair Carmichael confirms, that he asked permission of his minister before contacting the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 1st April about the memo. The Cabinet Office inquiry confirmed that Roddin used his official phone to talk to the journalist – wisely, perhaps, since if Roddin had taken any trouble to conceal what he was doing, Carmichael might have been able to claim he knew nothing about it. Carmichael confirmed to the Cabinet Office inquiry that he had known Roddin was going to leak the memo, and that he could – and should – have stopped his Special Adviser from doing so.
Derek Bateman inquires what David Mundell (who got a rapid promotion to solitary splendour as the only UK government MP in Scotland) may have known about the Sturgeon memo leak. If David Mundell knew anything, the Cabinet Office inquiry was unable to find it out, and we are never likely to know if Carmichael or Roddin chatted, minister to minister or SpAD to SpAD.
So on Friday 3rd April, the Daily Telegraph published the story of a leaked memo about a meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and Sylvie Bermann, the new French Ambassador to the UK.
Certainly, if Roddin hadn’t been found out, it was a win-win situation for the LibDems. They hoped the leak would make Nicola Sturgeon look bad, and they could be pretty sure Scottish Labour would jump at the chance to howl abuse at Sturgeon.
James Mackenzie, editor at Better Nation, was the first to deduce that the LibDems were responsible for the memo leak, but it became obvious by 5th April that Alistair Carmichael was the man when he 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.”
Euan Roddin was not a civil servant: he was special adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland, a political appointment with tenure lasting only as long as as Alistair Carmichael remained in that ministerial position. From the current Cabinet Office Code of Conduct for Special Advisers:
Special advisers add “a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers while reinforcing the political impartiality of the permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support”.
University College London’s Constitution Unit published a paper on Being A Special Adviser, which notes:
A special adviser is extra political support for a Government minister – usually a Secretary of State or the Prime Minister. They are personally appointed by the Secretary of State (or Prime Minister) and their tenure and career as a special adviser are largely tied to that of their minister. They may bring a particular policy expertise or communications expertise. But, as is reflected in the above quote, special advisers are part of a much wider support system for ministers, in particular the civil service, and their contribution is intended to complement, not replace or substitute for, the advice and input of civil servants.
So what was this not?
Euan Roddin and Alistair Carmichael did not breach purdah – neither one of them were under the obligation of a civil servant to “avoid any activity that could call our political impartiality into question” – neither the LibDem Secretary of State for Scotland nor his Special Adviser are expected to be politically impartial.
Euan Roddin and Alistair Carmichael are not responsible for the cost of the Cabinet Office inquiry, except in the indirect sense that if they hadn’t leaked the memo, the inquiry wouldn’t have been necessary: but given the leak, a full and fair inquiry into all possible sources of the leak became essential, in justice to all the Scotland Office staff who had access to the memo. Criminals are not and should not be held responsible for the cost of running the Sheriff Courts: no more should Roddin and Carmichael be held responsible for the cost of holding an inquiry into the leak. (Whoever labelled the cost at £1.4M, it was certainly a wild over-estimate, probably based on the cost of the full salaries of the staff carrying out the investigation: but those salaries would have been paid whether or not the inquiry had been carried out.)
— Caron Lindsay (@caronmlindsay) May 23, 2015
So what was this?
Simply: Euan Roddin leaked a confidential memo hoping that it would do political damage to Labour and to the SNP: Alistair Carmichael gave permission for him to do so, and then lied: claiming a civil servant had done the leak, claiming he’d known nothing about the memo til he saw it in the Telegraph, claiming anything but the truth: Roddin asked his permission to do this shabby bit of electioneering, and Carmichael consented for him to do it.
Was this “corrupt and illegal” behaviour that could void Alistair Carmichael’s election? No, because Alistair Carmichael was attempting to smear Nicola Sturgeon, who won’t be standing for election til May 2016, and who is not standing as a candidate in Orkney or Shetland. (Though the Peat Worrier has a charming theory of how the 1983 act could be made to apply, I doubt if the Electoral Commission would think so.)
Could Alistair Carmichael be recalled as an MP by suspension from Parliament followed by petition from his constituents, as outlined in the Recall Act 2015? Well, not yet, because (hat tip to the Peat Worrier) while the Act became law on 26th March, there are as yet no statutory instruments which describe exactly how an MP is to become subject to a recall petition process which means the Recall Act can as yet have no effect. If Alistair Carmichael is suspended from the Commons for “at least 10 sitting days” before the statutory instruments are made law, his constituents in Orkney and Shetland cannot petition to have him recalled as an MP.
There’s to be no penalty exacted by the LibDems for the leak or for the lying.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, has declared that his deputy leader suffered an “aberration” and that as a liberal, Rennie believes Carmichael deserves a second chance:
I hope fair minded people would agree that Alistair Carmichael should be given that second chance.
Yesterday, the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party Executive met and gave Alistair Carmichael its support. He has my support too.
Alistair will now get back to his job representing Orkney and Shetland.
So that’s all right then. As Caron Lindsay responds in the comments at LibDem Voice following Willie Rennie’s announcement, the LibDems have “a commitment to rehabilitation” as part of their core values: presumably Euan Roddin is also to be “rehabilitated” with a five-year contract and a salary of at least £74,000 a year. That would be only fair, as Roddin is also in need of rehabilitation. (Willie Rennie has not said, but presumably Roddin also deserves a second chance and the support of the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party Executive and, key to proper rehabilitation, the £74,000 salary.)
More practically, the LibDems are certainly afraid that if they have to have a by-election in the Orkney and Shetland constituency, this time around the SNP’s Danus Skene might win and there would then be only seven LibDem MPs in the Commons and none in Scotland. The LibDems may be good at winning elections in Orkney and Shetland, and may be good at winning by-elections – but as Samuel Griffiths said in the first comment on Willie Rennie’s announcement (and Caron Lindsay didn’t argue with him):
Not much else that can be done. The SNP would most likely win any by-election. It’s a choice of standing behind Alistair or losing another MP. Life just gets better for the LibDems.
Andrew Ducker presented an alternative point of view in a comment which the LibDem Voice mods chose not to make visible:
Of course there’s more that could be done. He could be tried, under party rules, with bringing the party into disrepute.
And then we could lose the by-election.
And then we could move on and start fighting the battle to win some Scottish seats back without being tainted constantly with backing our MPs, even when they cost the taxpayer millions through lies, because of short term opportunism.se
If he’d stood up before the election and admitted that he’d done it, that would be a different matter – he could have resigned his role, and stood for the seat legitimately. But he lied, and continued to lie, and stood while lying.
Him remaining in his seat is going to make it harder for every activist trying to win seats in 2016 in Holyrood, and 2020 in Westminster.
The Lib Dems cannot win without being seen to care about honesty and decency. We cannot be seen as the party of political tricks and lies.
Ducker added at his own blog, where he posted the above comment while it was stuck in the moderation queue:
I really want to be able to support the Lib Dems. More than that, when I have more energy I’d like to be out there working with them trying to make a difference. But they’re making it really hard for me.
Whether or not Alistair Carmichael personally finds he can hang on to his seat is up to the insular communities of the Orkneys and Shetland. If they can’t stomach his lies, then his position as their MP will become untenable. If they think he’s hanging on just to keep the SNP candidate out of Parliament, then it will depend on what they think of the SNP candidate – Ian Murray became the only Labour MP left standing not so much because he was peculiarly talented as because the SNP’s candidate Paco McSheepie couldn’t win back voters he’d insulted.
It’s a gamble for the LibDems. Maybe stepping down with appropriate dignity and apologies would lose Alistair Carmichael his job, but they might net another LibDem MP to replace him if they can find an appropriate Orcadian or Shetlander candidate to stand in the by-election. Maybe if Alistair Carmichael hangs on, this might do them damage in the 2016 Holyrood elections, but they’ve only got 5 seats to lose anyway. (Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur may be wondering if their majorities are really bullet-proof.)
What seems likely is that Alistair Carmichael will try to hang on. (If he steps down voluntarily, he doesn’t have to worry about refusing his severance pay: there won’t be any.)
On BBC Radio Orkney on Monday morning, Alistair Carmichael said:
“I have said already that I very much regret the position I am in. I have been the member of parliament for Orkney and Shetland for the last 14 years. I have worked hard for local people and believe that’s the record on which I am entitled to rely and that’s the job that I am now going to be getting on with. None of that has changed.”
But eventually, the LibDems must realise Alistair Carmichael has become a liability. They’ll tell him he has to go, and hope that David Cameron calls a by-election for Orkney and Shetland at a time they can win it. But if their steady defence that Carmichael “deserves a second chance” has done them too much damage already, they may be too late for 2016 no matter how much Carmichael apologises when he finally quits.