‘I’m sorry, Mr Murrell, I find it hard to believe you’

Committee Room 1 is a squat oval on the ground floor of the Scottish parliament. It is an unremarkable room but governments like this one end up in rooms like this – one way or another.

After the glory, after the vanity, comes the banal indignity of cheap carpets and glaring lights.

Under their unforgiving beams sat Peter Murrell, the most powerful man in Scotland no one has heard of.

Members of the harassment inquiry, SNP and otherwise, were businesslike towards him but there was no mistaking the import of the moment.

As Mr Nicola Sturgeon, Murrell is co-pilot of the country and a fierce political animal – but you couldn’t have guessed it from his demeanour.

The jackal doesn’t howl. His register is low, almost soft, and his diction ever-so-slightly posh, but Scottish-posh – amongs become amongsts, but ers are still urrs.

Murrell looks like a bank manager: beady eyes, shiny head, smart suit. You’d pass him in the street never knowing his power, which may be the very definition of power.

His answers often came slowly, studded with ponderous pauses and gazes ceilingwards. The air of good-natured confusion was overdone. Perhaps he intended to come across like a mildly dotery Kirk minister who had misplaced his sermon notes, but there was something a little too practised in his routine.

Jackie Baillie wished the SNP chief executive a happy birthday with all the generosity of an executioner offering a condemned man his final cigarette.

‘I hope the First Minister finds time in her busy schedule to take you out this evening,’ she added, with a smile as sweet as acid.

‘I’m in Level 4,’ he riposted.

‘So you are. You could maybe get a takeaway then.’

‘If I’m a lucky boy.’

You could have tried to cut the tension with a knife but you would have needed a chainsaw.

‘Did you discuss your evidence that you’re giving today with the First Minister prior to coming here?’ she enquired. He told her no.

‘Hmph. Okay. That’s quite extraordinary,’ she breezed ahead, her biro scrawling ominously across a heavily tabbed notebook.

Next she interrogated him on an alleged incident from 2009 which he claimed to have learned about only in 2017.

‘Does this go on often, people not telling you things,’ she concern-trolled.

He countered that political parties were ‘strange beasts’ in which ‘we’re all just individuals – so if someone reports something to one member of the party and they don’t share that, it’s not something the SNP can be aware of’.

She was sceptical: ‘I am a member of a political party, too… and people are told things that go on, particularly of that nature, and they’re told quite quickly. So I am genuinely surprised that you didn’t know at all.’

The Labour bruiser’s staunchest blow was pointing out the discrepancy between Murrell’s claim that Sturgeon’s meetings with Alex Salmond were not party business, and his wife’s insistence that they were not government business.

‘There’s a direct conflict in your statement compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement,’ she needled him. ‘There’s no dubiety about that. You have both written different things.’

‘I don’t accept that,’ he mumbled in protest.

‘It is in black and white.’

The suspiciously bronzed Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton gave a good accounting of himself, too.

He asked if Murrell had taken part in any meetings to plan the party’s response to allegations against Alex Salmond.

When Murrell said he had not, Cole-Hamilton was direct: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Murrell, I find it hard to believe you.’

The MSP pressed on: ‘You are legendary for your comms prowess and yet you mean to tell me that a variation in the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax debate took precedence over discussions of this nature, to prepare your party for the biggest bombshell in its history?’

From Murrell, only an icy, blank stare.

Power is unaccustomed to hard questions.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

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