Nicola Sturgeon with deputy first minister John Swinney. Photo: Getty
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Leak inquiry ordered over memo that claimed Nicola Sturgeon wants David Cameron to remain prime minister

The cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has confirmed that an official inquiry will take place.

An official inquiry will take place into the leaking of a memo which suggested SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon wanted David Cameron to remain prime minister, the cabinet secretary has announced.

In a statement, Jeremy Heywood wrote: "You have asked me to investigate issues relating to the apparent leak of a Scotland Office memo that forms the basis of this morning’s Daily Telegraph story. I can confirm that earlier today I instigated a Cabinet Office-led leak inquiry to establish how extracts from this document may have got into the public domain. Until that inquiry is complete I will not be making any further comment either on the document or the inquiry."

The Daily Telegraph reported this morning that the SNP leader told the French ambassador to the UK that she did not see Ed Miliband as "prime minister material" and that "she'd rather see David Cameron remain as PM". The quotes are said to come from an official memo prepared by a civil servant after speaking to France's consul general in Edinburgh, Pierre-Alain Coffinier, who was present at the meeting.

Sturgeon has denied saying the words quoted in the memo, and that she wished to discover  "how did it come to contain such an inaccuracy and how did it get into the hands of the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph?"

Mr Coffinier has also denied that the ambassador and Sturgeon discussed who she wanted as prime minister. "At no stage did anyone comment on their preference regarding the elections," he said earlier today.

Ed Miliband said: "I think these are damning revelations. What it shows is that while in public the SNP are saying they don’t want to see a Conservative government in private they’re actually saying they do want a Conservative government. It shows that the answer at this General Election is that if you want the Conservatives out the only answer is to vote Labour for a Labour government."

My colleague Stephen Bush has more on the likely fallout here, as well as the suggestion that the leak may have come from the office of Scotland secretary Alistair Carmichael, with the aim of helping the Lib Dems hold on to their 11 Scottish seats. The BBC's Scotland correspondent James Cook concurs that some of Sturgeon's alleged comments are not as revelatory as they might first appear. "OF COURSE there are some SNP strategists - I know, I've spoken to them - who say in private a Tory victory would hasten independence," he tweeted today.

Former Labour spinner Damian McBride gives his take on the news here, and asks the following pertinent question: "Are Sturgeon, the Ambassador and the Consul General disputing the entire version of the conversation reported in the Scottish Office memo, or just the line about the First Minister’s supposed preference for David Cameron as PM. Did she say, for example, that “she wouldn’t want a formal coalition with Labour”; that “the SNP would almost certainly have a large number of seats”; that “she had no idea ‘what kind of mischief’ Alex Salmond would get up to”; and that she “didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material”. If those four points are accurate, then it makes it all the more remarkable that the fifth point (about the preference for Cameron) was not. If, on the other hand, all five points are disputed, then it raises even more serious questions about how this account of events found its way into the official FCO memo."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.