04 Apr 2015
April 4, 2015

Pardon?

5 Comments

The French Ambassador to the UK had a “truncated” chat with Scotland’s First Minister; the Edinburgh-based French Consul General made a note of the conversation. The latter reported his note verbally to a UK Government civil servant, as protocol requires. The note includes of Nicola Sturgeon; “She would rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material)”. The civil servant’s note on the consul general’s briefing includes personal doubt about whether the consul general was correct in his impression of that aspect of the meeting.

This is a perfectly legitimate scoop from The daily Telegraph’s Simon Johnson – the note is real. It’s also perfectly plausible that Nicola Sturgeon expressed the view that she finds David Cameron more prime-ministerial that Ed Miliband. And of course it’s true that the prospect of another UK Tory government with little or no representation in Scotland would be an even greater gift to the SNP than a Labour one (nb: The SNP is expecting a gift either way).

Maybe the FM slipped up, a casual aside not knowing that the meeting would be reported? Maybe she said something humanly complimentary about a Tory (schlock!). Or maybe she simply didn’t say that stuff? Post match denials all ’round, from politicians and diplomats, carry zero value of themselves (this is a different matter from whether or not they are telling the truth). But Labour’s cliched, “devastating news” (who’s devastated?) response is surely mistaken in its daft hyperbole.

The SNP has chosen to go left of Labour in Scotland – it used to be to the right. Unlike Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, with her working class Glasgow seat, can’t realistically be painted as anything other than left of centre and that’s where she and the SNP draw their mass support from. Aggressively using the strongly Tory Telegraph’s report of what appears to be a questioned report of a meeting looks ill-advised for Labour. It flags Labour in Scotland’s difficulty with the fact that UK Labour (like the Tories) has already written-off many Scottish seats to the SNP and knows that it may well need them to form an administration in May. And it appears to put Labour in Scotland alongside the Tories ‘again’.

Two more points. First, according to @kennyfarq, a thoroughly reliable Scottish journalist, the UK government note in question was taken by a civil servant at the Scotland Office. The Scotland Office has two main locations – Melville Street in Edinburgh and Whitehall. Both are very small and many staff will know whose job it was on the day to be the official departmental contact for the French consul. However, whoever it was was just doing their job. The much more significant thing for the civil service will be to determine who, during either strict ‘purdah’ designed precisely to prevent this sort of situation arising, or the close run-up to it, passed the note to a minister. For weeks before proper purdah, civil servants are warned to be careful with obvious election-fodder – you can’t be much more ‘careless’ than seems evident in this case.

It’ll be easy for the UK civil service to tell who gave the note to the minister so close to, or actually during, purdah. So what started out as a cheap jibe by anti-SNP forces will now be the subject of an effective counter-attack by the SNP. And it’s quite possible a civil servant will take a substantial personal hit. A leak by a civil servant to a minister who then acts so as to cost the civil servant dearly? Irresponsible? You be the judge.

Second, the matter illustrates another very significant weakness for Labour in Scotland – which is why it would have been better for them to have been less aggressive in this case. This weakness is that the SNP is perceived by many Labour voters and members in England as exactly the ‘old’ Labour they say they love. If, post-lection, Labour relies on SNP votes to pass legislation, the SNP will put down amendments to Labour’s left and they’ll have the full support of many Labour members, and perhaps 3 dozen Labour MPs, in that. Wait for the chattering classes and their representatives in the columns to start telling us, if Miliband rebuffs the SNP, that the SNP is the true heart of Labour.

Labour in Scotland should forget about going left of the SNP (implausible and impossibly anyway), and so should Labour in the UK. Scotland’s future is quasi or actually independent and if the SNP uses real tax raising powers to shaft the middle-classes they (the SNP) will feel the pain. England’s future certainly won’t be involve going further left than Labour is presently (it isn’t that far left as it is, even ‘though Labour might end up the largest party). In both cases, Labour needs to relearn why Tony Blair was so successful at winning elections. That may not happen for a while yet, though.