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. He usually writes about politics. 

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.