You won't like her when she's angry. Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Alistair Carmichael revealed as the leaker of the SNP memo

The former Scottish secretary admits to being behind the leaked memorandum that had the SNP furiously denying said conversation ever took place and got Scottish Labour elated.

Update 16:00, 04/04/15: It's been suggested to me from several quarters that the leaker may be Alistair Carmichael or someone in his office. As Secretary of State for Scotland the memorandum would definitely have crossed his desk, and it might help the 10 other Liberal Democrats trying to retain their seats in mainland Scotland.

Update, 15:24, 22/05/2015: It was Alistair Carmichael. He authorised his special advisor to leak the memo. Crucially, the Cabinet Secretary's investigation suggests that there is no evidence that the memo's contents were incorrect. However, in a letter from Carmichael apologising to Sturgeon, he writes that "the details of that account are not correct".

***

Vote SNP, get Tory. It’s not the campaign that Jim Murphy wanted to run when he became leader of Scottish Labour, but it’s what the party now thinks is its last, best hope of blunting the SNP surge.

So the Telegraph’s frontpage this morning will be a shot in the arm for both Murphy and Ed Miliband – “Sturgeon’s secret backing for Cameron” is their splash.  They’ve got hold of a memorandum written by a senior British civil servant in which Nicola Sturgeon appears to tell the French Ambassador she’d prefer that David Cameron remain as Prime Minister and that she doesn’t see Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister.  

It’s all been hotly denied by both the SNP and the French Embassy. The Telegraph has published the memorandum in full, but the key section is below:

The Ambassador also had a truncated meeting with the FM (FM running late after a busy Thursday…). Discussion appears to have focused mainly on the political situation, with the FM stating 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 confessed that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material). I have to admit that I’m not sure that the FM’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that, so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation.”

The civil servant’s scepticism isn’t quite justified – as the French officials in question were all fluent English speakers the conversation took place without translators. So what’s going on? Yes, the story's been furiously denied by Sturgeon and the French Ambassador in the strongest terms. Readers with long memories will remember Tony Blair denying he wanted rid of his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, or Gordon Brown denying he wanted rid of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling.  We now know that these denials were false.  

In this instance, almost every think-tanker, lobbyist, member of parliament or party staffer I've spoken to has, at some point over the last five years said they can't see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. ("I look at the numbers and think we're fine. I look at him and think we're fucked," was the colourful reaction of one Labour staffer. A Conservative MP told me recently that "At the crunch, this country will never make Miliband Prime Minister.") During the referendum, one of the repeated refrains from activists within the Yes movement was that Miliband was heading to defeat. The mood music of the independence campaign was that the social democratic government promised by Miliband cannot be delivered within the United Kingdom. So all that Sturgeon needs to have said is: 'I can't see Miliband as Prime Minister - but at least it's easier to argue for independence with a Tory government" which is neither implausible or revelatory.

But what those in Labour who are hoping to gain any traction on this seem to have forgotten, is that for all the repeated Blair-Brown eruptions were seized on by the Tories, they were mostly disbelieved by the party faithful and didn't stop New Labour winning three elections in a row, two in landslides. It seems likely that this leak will have just as small an effect on the SNP.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496