It might be the only interesting thing ever to come out of the Scotland Office.
The memo leaked by former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael through his special adviser in April was dynamite.
The notes on a conversation between SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and French ambassador Sylvie Bermann recorded an admission from the First Minister that she would prefer David Cameron to remain in Downing Street after May’s election. Carmichael, quizzed on Channel 4 News, said it was nowt to do with him, guv’nor.
The problem? Ms Sturgeon said it wasn’t true. The French consul general said it wasn’t true. And eventually Carmichael said it wasn’t true, thus bringing to an abrupt end one of the least promising careers in political leaking.
There being little else to do in Orkney and Shetland, his constituents petitioned the Court of Session to have Carmichael’s election invalidated under the Representation of the People Act 1983. The proceedings were broadcast and streamed live by STV in a UK television first.
Presiding in the case, Lady Paton and Lord Matthews found that the MP had told “a blatant but simple lie” but said it was not clear “beyond reasonable doubt” that he had provided “a false statement about himself to the effect that he was someone who was upright, honourable, trustworthy, and straightforward, and therefore would not be involved in the leak”. His statement to Channel 4 could be construed as either “a general one in relation to his personal character or conduct” or “more specific and limited to a false statement that he was not involved in that particular leak”. Even if the less onerous civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence were applied, it still would not have been enough to prove a section 106 infraction.
That all sounds mightily technical but it means that Carmichael is in the clear, something that does not sit well with his political opponents.
For the Napoleonic wing of the SNP, Carmichael’s head was another prize in their quest for total dominance of Scottish political life. He had offended against the Holy Mother, St Nicola of the Immaculate Separation, and had to be cast into the fire. Fifty-seven MPs also has a sweeter taste than 56 (though now it would only have taken them to a more savoury 55).
Watching the cybernat meltdown and tremble-lipped indictments of establishment stitch-up is of course very entertaining. (That Lord Matthews is a former SNP activist is a mere factual inconvenience.) And yes, some of those baying for his blood are unpleasant sorts.
But that does not occlude one basic fact: Carmichael is a liar. A “blatant” liar.
We all are, of course. I’m not actually 6ft 2in and I didn’t model for Armani in Milan this summer so much as buy a shirt from them in an Amazon sale. My Grindr profile pic that looks suspiciously like Josh Hartnett? Yeah, Pearl Harbour screen grab.
Politicians mislead the public all the time, sometimes for their own good, sometimes for base and self-serving reasons. Dare I say Ms Sturgeon will have told a porkie or two in her time; I’ll let readers decide how to characterise her blood-curdling claims of a privatised NHS if Scotland voted No to independence.
Carmichael’s conduct was egregious. He had “full responsibility” for the dissemination of a civil service memo outlining a conversation between a minister of the Crown and a foreign dignitary. By his own admission, this “was a serious breach of protocol” and “the details of the account [were] not correct”. The document was given to the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper hostile to the Nationalists and which went big on the story.
The revelation was potentially devastating to the SNP’s electoral chances, for Scottish Labour’s campaign strategy was based on the message that a strong showing for the Nationalists would assist David Cameron to remain in Number 10. (This is the only part of the whole saga with any definite truth to it.) Had it proved to be true, it might have been Scottish Labour sitting with fifty-odd MPs right now and Jim Murphy poised to sweep into Bute House next May. (Leave me my dreams, okay.)
The lying didn’t stop there. Carmichael lied to Channel 4 News, telling them the first he had heard of the memorandum was when a journalist contacted him. He later admitted that, had he still been a minister, these actions would have warranted his resignation.
To this layman, Lady Paton and Lord Matthews have put a reasonable and fair-minded construction on the relevant Act. Their interpretation of Carmichael’s Channel 4 comments as a lie but not one directly related to his “personal character or conduct” strikes me as sensible. The law cannot be bent to every whim of the most excitable Nationalists, otherwise a great many people would have been forcibly relocated to England by now and those who hadn’t would be languishing in Barlinnie on treason charges.
The legal questions may have been resolved but this is about politics now and the politics stink. In lying to Channel 4 News, Carmichael lied to his constituents, the general public, and journalists. How are the voters of Orkney and Shetland supposed to have confidence in their MP? How are reporters supposed to take him at his word? Yes, politicians often spin you a line and a canny hack takes it all with a pinch of salt; with Carmichael, we’re going to need a Saxa factory from now on.
As for the public… you tell me. The next time he pops up on the Scotland Tonight sofa, will you be pondering the important policy issues he is discussing or will the Louis Heren question be running through your mind: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”
Politicians so rarely stand down of their own volition. The honourable exception was John Profumo, the Tory Cabinet minister who resigned after misleading Parliament about his affair with Christine Keeler and dedicated the remainder of his life to good works. If Carmichael were truly contrite, he would take a leaf out of Profumo’s book. If he really cared about his party and its chances of retaining Orkney and Shetland, he would make way for a fresh face who could rebuild trust between the Liberal Democrats and the local communities. If he genuinely had the best interests of his constituents at heart, he would recognise that, while he may not have broken the law, he has broken faith with the people he was elected to serve and no court can absolve him of that.
The alternative is keeping his head down and hoping everyone forgives and forgets. But he has been shown to be a liar, and an incompetent one at that. He has to rebuild his reputation with that hanging over his head, not to mention a hostile public, a much-diminished party support network, and the obscurity of the Shankill-or-Short-Strand benches in the Commons.
That is quite an ask. Even Rona can’t help him now.