In a land of political pygmies

Scotland's First Minister has the police on his tail. But he's still in charge. Why? Tom Brownreport

Scotland's First Minister, Henry McLeish, has a new nickname: Henry Houdini, political escapologist. He was not free with one bound - more of a slither and squirm. Over the past week, lip-licking headlines predicted his downfall: "McLeish damned", "Frantic McLeish rocked by crisis", "100 hours to save his career".

McLeish and his spin-quacks so crudely mishandled a comparatively trifling irregularity over office expenses - with no personal profit for himself - that it threatened to cost the First Minister his career, just as he was set to celebrate the first anniversary of his succession to the late Donald Dewar.

He has emerged with his credibility damaged, his competence in serious doubt, his stature diminished, the matter of £36,122 in wrongly claimed public money as yet unresolved, and the Inland Revenue and police on his tail.

Yet he is still in charge of Scotland's government.

Why? Because in the Scottish Parliament of 129 MSPs, there is no other serious contender for the position of First Minister.

"Officegate", as it inevitably became known, not only exposed McLeish's frailties; it demonstrated, to a depressing degree, the paucity of talent and the poverty of potential among politicians in the parliament. If there had been a single Scottish cabinet minister or backbencher worthy of consideration, McLeish would not have survived.

The new politics of devolution was supposed to attract a new breed of parliamentarian - people of ability and achievement in non-political spheres, with a breadth of experience of Scottish life. There was even a hope that Westminster figures of real clout (Robin Cook's name was most often mentioned) would move back north.

These hopes were dashed even before the first election. The large majority of MSPs are former party hacks, upstart apparatchiks, researchers, MPs' gofers and bag-carriers, trade unionists, lecturers and former local councillors.

The standard of debate is abysmal and the slavishness to party line is worse. McLeish, who played an important part in delivering devolution and has years of front-bench experience at Westminster, stands not quite head and shoulders above such company. His only possible challenger is his Education Minister, Jack McConnell, who came within five votes of beating him in the leadership election after Donald Dewar's death a year ago. McConnell has proved the outstanding success of the Scottish administration, but he still needs time to overcome a racy "Jack the lad" reputation.

The irony is that McLeish was chosen with the backing of Scottish Labour's "Godfather", Chancellor Gordon Brown, as "a safe pair of hands". At Westminster, he had a reputation as a nit-picking master of detail. Strange, then, that his handling of his constituency accounts was anything but safe, and his initial failure lay in the detail of parliamentary expenses. From 1987, when he was a new MP setting up office, he sub-let a room without disclosing the rental to the Commons Fees Office. Five tenants paid him varying rents, and he says: "It was a simple error, made in complete ignorance, and once it had been established we just carried on."

He claims that he remained in complete ignorance for 14 years, until April this year, when the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Elizabeth Filkin, began an investigation into reports of irregularity. Her inquiry was aborted in June, when McLeish ceased to be an MP and was no longer under her jurisdiction.

Instead of closing down the matter with a full explanation, McLeish's spin-doctor, Peter MacMahon, a former political editor for the Sunday Mirror, stalled and stonewalled. In October, a deal was struck: McLeish himself revealed he was paying back £9,000 out of his own pocket.

During First Minister's Questions, the real opposition proved to be Scotland's anti-devolution, English-based right-wing press. One editor is said to believe that bringing down the First Minister would be a CV qualification that could lead to a London editorship.

But the worst damage was done by McLeish himself in a fumbling appearance on BBC1's Question Time, when he admitted to David Dimbleby that he did not know how much money was involved. On Monday, even the supportive Daily Record was so exasperated that it exhorted: "For heaven's sake answer the bloody questions, Henry!" McLeish duly obliged with a series of mea culpa interviews, a press conference and an explanation to his backbenchers: "This was a muddle, not a fiddle."

Far too late and with great reluctance, he admitted that the total rental received and not declared over the years was £36,122. McLeish has asked for a ruling on whether he should pay this back, but the consensus is that, to remove all traces of taint, he should send his personal cheque off now.

Meanwhile, Henry Houdini has escaped with his political life. He now has 17 months to live down the scandal and win back the confidence of Scots voters before the next Scottish Parliament election. Lucky he's a man of modest stature in a parliament of political pygmies.