One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a straight answer…

Can I ask, Mr Murrell: is there anybody in the room with you?’

For a moment, I thought I had tuned into an impromptu Holyrood seance instead of the harassment committee. Jackie Baillie was giving SNP high heid yin Peter Murrell a forensic once-over via Zoom when she abruptly objected: ‘You keep looking off to the left.’

Once a Blairite, always a Blairite. 

Murrell typically has the look of a bank manager searching for a pen but his face was now contorted in confusion. He maintained there was no one there and even offered to turn the camera around to prove it, telling Baillie it was ‘quite a conspiracy you’re suggesting’. 

I’d like to think there was a shadow-cloaked Nicola Sturgeon in the corner making her way through a 20-pack of Marlboro Lights like the Cigarette-Smoking Man in the X-Files. If any government could cover up the existence of little green men, it’s this lot.

‘There’s a magpie outside, but apart from that— in fact, there’s two now,’ Murrell updated the committee, like a particularly shifty David Attenborough. 

One for sorrow, two for joy… The nursery rhyme doesn’t specify how many portend the coming of a straight answer, but it’s safe to say Mr Murrell did not have a quorum with him. 

‘Well, I’m glad there’s two because it’s unlucky if there’s only one,’ chirped convener Linda Fabiani, as though this wasn’t the most bizarre committee session in the history of devolution. 

My granny, God rest her, used to greet the solitary creatures with a salutation of: ‘Hello, Mr Magpie, how’s your wife and weans?’ in hopes of warding off misfortune, and it’s a source of pride to learn that she therefore possessed all the necessary qualifications to sit on a Holyrood committee. 

The rest of Baillie’s questioning was less esoteric, though the same didn’t go for Murrell’s answers. She pressed him on previous assurances that there were no other text messages relating to Alex Salmond. 

‘You asked whether there was any relevant information and there wasn’t — and there still isn’t,’ he replied, with an emphasis on ‘relevant’ that you could have weighed in kilograms. 

‘No, I didn’t ask about other relevant information. I asked if there were other text messages that related to the allegations made about Alex Salmond.’

‘Column 24 of my oral evidence, from yourself: “No other relevant information was found. Can you repeat that under oath?” and I said that was my evidence.’

He knew the column number. A very well-prepared witness. 

‘That’s not the only place, with respect Mr Murrell, that I asked you that,’ she demurred with a smile that would freeze the Sahara. 

Proceedings had kicked off with deputy convener Margaret Mitchell struggling to read her question. Considering she appeared to have it written down, it was not the most auspicious start.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, turned out in an open-neck shirt and snazzy blazer, looking for all the world like a mid-ranking finalist in a sparsely attended George Clooney lookalike contest, smouldered in frustration throughout his questions. 

When Murdo Fraser got his chance, all pretence of bonhomie was gone. The Tory has a dark past — he is a former solicitor — and he put his training to good use, reminding Murrell that he had previously told the committee both that he was not home during his wife’s meetings with Alex Salmond and that, on one occasion, he ‘arrived home not long before the meeting ended’. 

‘You have given this committee, under oath, two different accounts of the meeting of April 2… Which of these accounts is true and which is false?’

‘When you’re giving evidence and you’re being questioned in this fashion, it is difficult to go back to the point of what you knew when and take it back what I know now as opposed to what I knew back then,’ Murrell explained. Perhaps the magpies could translate. 

Chunks of the session were lost to a whirring garble as Murrell and Fraser attempted to talk over each other. These sections of Murrell’s testimony really stood out from the rest. They were unintelligible by accident. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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