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A Memo On Memogate

May 26th, 2015 Posted in Liberal Democrats by

Malcolm Bruce has commented in a 20 minute Today programme segment on Memogate. This following a long weekend of coverage. I note the following. The Liberal Democrat Party remains quite the most hopeless stewards of their own reputation of any of the major parties. Showing no sign whatsoever of seeing themselves as others see them. Let alone addressing the issues that arise from that. Regardless of the long-term damage it does them collectively.

Memogate itself is relatively simple. Alistair Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, and then Scottish Secretary, was made aware (in that capacity) of a civil service memo that suggested the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP (SNP) had made politically unwise remarks to a French diplomat. Carmichael authorised his special adviser to release the remarks to the media with the intent of causing the SNP political damage during an election campaign. When approached about the matter by the press, he lied about his involvement. A Cabinet leak inquiry followed, in which these facts came to light. It was agreed between the inquiry and Carmichael (no longer a Minister) that he would issue a fulsome apology and forgo his Ministerial severance pay.

Misconduct in public office and dishonesty was then admitted. A not insignificant degree of mitigation and apology was offered. The Ministerial portion of the scandal was settled. To Carmichael’s credit he did not attempt to bluff it out beyond this point.

The matter more generally though has not been settled. Carmichael remains an MP, one whose electoral mandate is self-evidently open to question having won his seat narrowly on a false prospectus about his own character and judgement.

He remains an MP in a political climate that does not tolerate misconduct in public life, and where Recall was a position supported by his Party (however anaemic the eventual legislation). It is perfectly reasonable, in these circumstances for his opponents to call for him to step down and fight a by-election. Putting his redoubtable record of public service to islanders and sincere apology up for public affirmation or not.

The problem is that he would probably lose such an election.

And that is the lens through which the Liberal Democrat Party is looking at the matter. They have only 1 MP left in Scotland, they are decimated, demoralised, and aggrieved, and do not wish to risk losing what it is they have left. They reasonably look at a man who has served them and his constituents well. To whom they owe favours, and have worked hard to support in turn. In short a friend and until this point a huge political asset who has managed to play something of the Prescott role in the Party, supporting an orange-book leadership while holding on to his social liberal principles and canny local campaigning instincts.

That matters internally. A lot.

Consequently the Scottish Liberal Democrat Executive has met, decided there is nothing to see here… it’s all settled… and would the public and SNP mind going away please… and frankly grow up… and learn to forgive people. What! what is their problem! I mean really. It’s not as if they’re purer than the driven snow… look at their lies that they got away with… we all make mistakes… etc.

That is the line.

It is self-serving crap.

The public can see it’s self-serving crap.

It will not help Alistair Carmichael’s reputation or future re-election prospects a jot. Quite the reverse. If not defenestrated by pressure or process, he’s probably out voluntarily or otherwise by 2020. This will not have gone away or been forgotten in 5 years.

As to the Liberal Democrat process… it looks like what it is – a group of Ally’s pally’s gathering together to agree he’s a terrible nice chap and sticking their heads in the sand about the wider implications of the scandal or their own long-term interests.

The BBC shrewdly asked Bruce this morning whether they would regret their approach if they lost MSPs in the 2016 Scottish election. He of coursed ducked the question; but that is what is likely to happen. The Party having already lost seats UK-wise over their casual indifference to matters of integrity and trust, has now started the next election cycle demonstrating it has learnt nothing. Nothing at all.

They could have acted more wisely.

What they could and should have done is take the matter seriously. Alistair Carmichael’s membership should have been suspended. His disreputable conduct properly considered by someone not connected with the tight-knit clan that run his Party machine, and their recommendations taken seriously. That should have taken at least a month and taken some of the oxygen out of the current media frenzy.

We cannot pre-judge, but it is not at all clear such a process would have recommended his expulsion. That disrepute has taken place is admitted. Sanctions to the same are not unipolar. They can be discrete, and a sensible one in this instance might have included a 3-6 month suspension.

That would be proportionate to the offence, demonstrate the Party takes such things seriously, and allow Carmichael to get on with his job, which right now involves a lot of apologising to islanders, in person, and demonstrating all the other reasons why he’s held the seat so long.

If during that suspension the SNP somehow succeed in getting a process going that forces him out, the Liberal Democrat Party would at least have had some moral high ground, having acted properly and seriously. That would count for something for his successor and the Party’s wider prospects in other Scottish elections.

But that opportunity has gone, and it’s heads in the sand and hope time.

In conclusion that after Thorpe, Smith, Rennard, Hancock etc. the Liberal Democrat Party still think the way to deal with unethical conduct and serious reputation issues is either denial, or denial followed by parish council procedures and bureaucratic excuses is extraordinary. That is follows an election where the same has severely damaged them shows a lack of survival instincts.

The next Leader will have to deal with this shower and their naval-gazing self-regard, or that survival is in doubt.

4 Responses to “A Memo On Memogate”

  1. allan thomson Says:

    Very good article. The bird however has flown and Holyrood is heading towards a Lib Dem free zone or something pretty close. The Scottish electorate has had a sufficiency of crap from those in cahoots with Tories during the Referendum process. They will not forget. The Scottish Lib Dem leader is, and has been, substantially out of his depth and simply cannot cope with multi dimensional issues of this magnitude. Despite his record as a local MP the serious nature of Alastair Carmichaels offence, exacerbated by pathetic and transparent attempts at mitigation, will eventually leave him no option but to resign. Comments by Sir Malcolm Bruce this morning have also done great damage to Alastairs Carmichaels fight to stay.

  2. Richard Gadsden Says:

    Your assumption that it is the Leader’s responsibility to sort this out and not the mass membership’s is the only problem with this entire piece. In the absence of a leader, such as we have at the moment, it’s clear that the new leader can’t be held at fault substantively (they clearly can in public opinion, of course).

    And you also assume that the Leader would not be from the clique who excuse this sort of thing – when the greatest criticism that the leaders have faced from the left has been that they are precisely part of this clique.

    With only 8 MPs, and the leader one of them, then preserving an MP will always be a much higher priority of the leader, reliant as he will be on that handful of votes in the Commons, than of the average member.

    The challenge is not to get out bureaucrats and replace them with Leadership drones, it is to get in people with some political nous and independence of mind into these sorts of decision-making forums.

  3. FiferJP Says:

    Election petition by the people of Orkney and Shetland looks like it will be lodged with the courts before Friday, with crowdfunding already above the ten percent needed to lodge court documents. I would suspect there will be no need for parliament to get involved; indeed parliament most likely will defer until judgement if the petition goes before the courts. Didn’t you get the memo?

  4. Sandu Jamieson Says:

    I’m fairly certain that when in Government, other Lib Dem Ministers ensured certain leaks ended up in the Public Domain but when questioned may have been able to answer in a more nuanced way. The fact that the leaked document happens to be true seems to have been submerged in the SNP inspired row currently taking place.

    Nevertheless, one perceptive Nat blogger is suggesting that in terms of the 2015 Act that there may be no case to answer in that parts of the Act have still not been implemented.