You won't like her when she's angry. Photo:Getty
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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 editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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George Osborne's double U-turn allows him to change while remaining the same

The Chancellor abandoned cuts to tax credits and the police but stuck to his target of a £10bn budget surplus. 

The U-turn is an underrated manoeuvre in politics. At a stroke, it reduces opponents to complaining that the government has done what they told it to do. As long as the U-turn is in the right direction, the voters, who pay little attention to such matters, are usually content.

The best climbdowns are often the fullest. In his Autumn Statement and Spending Review, George Osborne proved this not once but twice. As so often, the Treasury briefings that the Chancellor would merely provide "transitional" support for tax credit claimants were designed to lead reporters off the scent. Rather than modifying the cuts to in-work benefits, Osborne abandoned them entirely. In the face of the formidable coalition of Boris Johnson (his chief leadership rival), Tory backbenchers, the Sun, the work and pensions select committee, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Adam Smith Institute, he capitulated.

He does so at the cost of breaching his self-imposed welfare cap for three years. But this will only have the effect of amplifying his generosity. In fact, the cuts have merely been deferred (till 2020 as tax credits are absorbed by Universal Credit), rather than abandoned. But today at least, the Chancellor has got the headlines he wanted. 

After the Paris attacks, another formidable coalition of interests had inveighed against police cuts. And again, Osborne met their demands in full. Having suggested as recently as last weekend that there would be signifcant cuts (another bluff), he revealed in his peroration that there would be none at all. "The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police," he declared. Just as his tax credits U-turn shielded him from one leadership challenger (Boris), so this move shielded him from another (Home Secretary Theresa May). The Foreign Office budget, he also announced would be protected in real-terms, joining health, international development and defence behind the ring-fence. 

The skill of Osborne's statement was to change while remaining the same. Against expectations, he announced that his promised budget surplus in 2020 had not fallen but risen to £10.1bn (up £0.1bn). Gross tax increases of £28.5bn, including the new apprenticeship levy (£11.6bn), higher council tax (£6.2bn) and higher stamp duty for second homes and buy-to-let purchases (£3.8bn), as well as lower debt interest payments mean that he is still forecast to eliminate the deficit (albeit years later than originally promised). Staring intently at John McDonnell, he vowed that the Tories would "fix the roof while the sun is shining" (the shadow chancellor having told me that he would "throw up" if he heard the line again). 

But Osborne's decision to avoid the most hazardous cuts should not distract from those that remain. The average cut to unprotected departments, including transport, business and communities and local government - is 19 per cent. After the reductions in the last parliament, any fat has largely been eliminated. The Chancellor will be cutting into bone. If past experience is any guide, today's U-turns will not be his last. But as history also shows, that may not be to his cost. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.