The leader of the Scottish National party, Nicola Sturgeon, has emphatically denied that she told a senior French diplomat she would rather see David Cameron win the election because Ed Miliband was too weak to be prime minister.
In a terse, angry tweet, Scotland’s first minister said it was “categorically, 100%, untrue” that she made the dramatic disclosure when she met the French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, at Sturgeon’s offices in Holyrood in late February.
The Telegraph claimed that the allegation was contained in a leaked UK government memorandum, thought to come from the Foreign Office, which sets out an official account of the meeting from France’s experienced consul general in Edinburgh, Pierre-Alain Coffinier.
But Coffinier told the Guardian that this was untrue. He said he had checked his notes of that meeting, which took place at Holyrood after first minister’s questions on 26 February. “I have looked at my notes and absolutely no preference has been expressed by anyone regarding the outcome of the election,” he said. “Which suggests neither Nicola nor my ambassador said anything.”
The leaked document was drafted by a Whitehall official after Coffinier called the FCO, as protocol requires, to pass on a confidential account of several of the ambassador’s meetings in Edinburgh, which included a meeting with Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish secretary.
The memo published in full by the Telegraph reads: “The Ambassador … had a truncated meeting with the FM [Nicola Sturgeon] (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’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material)”.
However it concludes: “I [the official drafting the document] 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.”
If accurate, that account would directly challenge Sturgeon’s repeated position that she wants to see Cameron “locked out of Downing Street” by a bloc of Labour, SNP, Green and Plaid Cymru MPs if the Tories win the most seats but are still short of an overall majority.
Sceptics believe that the SNP’s long-term aim of stoking resentment against the UK would be best served by a second Cameron term, with the Tories aggressively cutting public spending and pushing for an EU referendum – an allegation consistently rejected by the SNP leadership.
The first minister underlined her deep dislike for the Tories again on Friday morning as she campaigned in the target seat of Edinburgh West, barely 12 hours after her acclaimed appearance in the seven-way leaders’ debate.
“It’s a matter of simple arithmetic: if Labour and the SNP combined can get more seats than the Tories, we can lock the Tories out of government,” she said. “I don’t want a Tory government. The Tories have done real damage to Scotland.”
Sturgeon tweeted her denial immediately after the Telegraph article was published online, telling the journalist involved: “your story is categorically, 100%, untrue…which I’d have told you if you’d asked me at any point today.”
An official SNP spokeswoman repeated that denial, pointing out that the allegations were based on a UK government document. “It’s a third-hand account and Nicola is telling you first hand it’s categorically untrue. It is categorically untrue. The first minister’s views on David Cameron and the Tory government are incredibly well known.”
A spokesman for the French embassy in London said the account set out in the alleged memo was inaccurate: “While the ambassador and the first minister, some time ago, have discussed the political situation, Ms Sturgeon did not touch on her personal political preferences with regards the future prime minister,” he said.
A second Sturgeon adviser was equally dismissive, saying it was implausible for Sturgeon to support or prefer a Tory government.
The Telegraph reports that the FCO official who took down Coffinier’s account was so surprised he questioned whether Sturgeon’s words had been mistranslated. But Coffinier reassured him the meeting had been conducted entirely in English, as the French team is fluent in the language.
Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, said the memo’s allegations were “astonishing”. He added: “For months Nicola Sturgeon has been telling Scots she wants rid of David Cameron yet behind closed doors with foreign governments she admits she wants a Tory government. It’s deja vu all over again – the SNP say one thing in public but another in private.”
This article was written by Severin Carrell and Nicholas Watt, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd April 2015 23.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010