Alistair Carmichael deliberately misled a Cabinet Office inquiry over the leak of a memo on Nicola Sturgeon’s view of May’s general election to save his political career, an election court in Edinburgh has been told.
Jonathan Mitchell QC told the hearing that the former Scottish secretary failed until 12 May to tell an investigation that he authorised the so-called Frenchgate memo to be leaked, five days after he narrowly saved his seat of Orkney and Shetland.
Carmichael admitted to the court that he did not tell the inquiry set up by the Cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, that he authorised the leak by his aide Euan Roddin when he was sent a short questionnaire in mid-April. It was an “act of untruthfulness,” Carmichael said.
The Liberal Democrat MP, who faces being stripped of his seat if found to have breached the Representation of the People’s Act 1983, admitted he had “contemplated being less wholly truthful” to the investigation. Carmichael said: “I felt I could truthfully say I didn’t leak it.”
His evidence came on the first day of a resumed election court case brought by four Orkney and Shetland constituents, all of whom support other political parties and have raised £127,000 through crowd-funding to retain Mitchell, who is active in the pro-independence group Lawyers for Yes, and pay legal costs.
Carmichael held his seat with a dramatically reduced majority, cut from 9,928 in 2010 down to 817, after the Scottish National party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies. The group taking him to court hope to force a byelection in the Lib Dems’ only Westminster seat left in Scotland.
They allege Carmichael won by lying about his role in the leak, involving a detailed Scotland Office memo which alleged that Sturgeon, the first minister, told the French ambassador Sylvie Bermann that she actually wanted David Cameron, the Conservative leader, to win the general election.
Its claims were vehemently denied by Sturgeon and rejected by Bermann’s then consul general in Edinburgh, Pierre Alain Coffinier. Two days after it was published by the Daily Telegraph, Carmichael implied on Channel 4 News he had no knowledge of the leak or the memo’s existence.
The former Cabinet minister told the court on Monday that he believed there was a clear public interest in leaking the memo, which would be “politically beneficial” in the runup to a general election. He and many other SNP opponents believed Sturgeon and her party secretly wanted a Tory government in London to build up the case for a second independence referendum.
Carmichael admitted he had broken strict codes of conduct on ministerial behaviour and told the court he had delayed revealing his role solely to protect Roddin, who was being attacked by nationalists on social media. “I was genuinely concerned about the state of mind of Euan Roddin, who was under real pressure, real stress,” Carmichael said.
Describing their leak as a “frolic of your own”, Mitchell was scathing. “If you or Mr Roddin has said to the inquiry on the questionnaires in the middle of April, had said at that point this is what had happened, there wouldn’t have been any need for those interviews, examination of phone records or email blocks [sic],” he said.
Carmichael denied that he had allowed Roddin to “swing” for him and that, by delaying his confession until 12 May, he had put 26 civil servants through the pain and stress of submitting to the leak inquiry questionnaire and a formal interview.
The MP said it was Roddin’s decision to leak the document: his special adviser had briefed him on its contents on a flight to the Faroe Islands in March. Carmichael insisted he had never seen it or read its contents before Roddin passed it to a Daily Telegraph journalist on 1 April and that allowed him to fend off the Cabinet Office questionnaire in April.
“At no point did Euan do anything that was not his choice: he felt very strongly that this information required to be put in the public domain. He had just come out of the [independence] referendum. He could see the political direction of travel [towards a second referendum],” Carmichael said.
The court heard earlier from Fiona Grahame, one of the four Orcadian voters behind the legal action, that she felt personally let down when the Cabinet Office inquiry finally revealed in late May that Carmichael admitted he authorised the leak.
“I can’t find anybody that wasn’t shocked,” she told Mitchell. “That was just the general feeling in the islands; disbelief really, that he had been so involved and he had basically lied about this memo, about leaking it.”
There were tense and combative exchanges in court when Tavish Scott, the MSP for Shetland and former Scottish Lib Dem leader, accused the petitioners of conducting a politically-motivated “show trial”.
Questioned by Mitchell, Scott said he felt disappointed by Carmichael’s dishonesty but added: “I don’t think people like these proceedings. They think this is a political show trial. They think this is politically motivated and is being funded by nationalists who don’t want opposition in this country.”
The case continues.
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th November 2015 18.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010