Henry Hill: There’s something rotten in the state of Scotland. But can anyone do anything about it?

18 Feb

Two weeks ago, when we last checked in on the Alex Salmond affair, we led with the calls for an independent, judge-led inquiry into the whole thing as confidence that the Scottish Parliament could actually hold the Scottish Government to account.

Well readers, it has got much, much worse since then.

Here’s what’s happened. First, the MSPs on the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair voted 5-4 against publishing the former First Minister’s evidence. As a result, he refused to appear. They claimed this was on legal advice, but opponents smelt a rat because the vote was split exactly along independence lines.

As a result the Spectator, which had previously been calling for a judge-led inquiry, went to court to seek a clarification about whether the original judgement precluded the publication of the evidence. In their own words: “Lady Dorrian made it clear that the court had no intention of obstructing a parliamentary inquiry or stopping a free press from doing its job — the Salmond evidence can now be published and the whole story told.”

Yet this is not what happened. Despite the judge’s clarification, the Committee once again voted against publishing Salmond’s submission – again pleading legal advice, although in light of Lady Dorian’s comments it isn’t obvious what this is. Journalists have also pointed out that this second vote was on publishing a revised submission which MSPs haven’t actually seen.

Now the decision has been referred to the Corporate Body of the Scottish Parliament, which meets today. Its membership comprises five MSPs, one from each party (the Independent used to be a Green), plus an SNP chair. If a majority of the ordinary members vote for publication, will the Presiding Officer side with the minority to block it?

Whatever happens today, the saga seems to be turbo-charging a sea-change in attitudes towards the Scottish Parliament. Adam Tomkins, a high-profile Conservative MSP and no devosceptic, has been leading the charge, comparing the state of the SNP administration to that of John Major’s Government in the ‘sleaze’ era.

Meanwhile Mandy Rhodes, the editor of Holyrood magazine, has been if anything even more brutal. In an editorial entitled ‘Something Rotten’, she brutally assesses not just the Salmond inquiry but the litany of broken promises and governance failures we cover so regularly in this column. Rhodes concludes:

“They say that a fish rots from the head down. And something is beginning to reek. The question will be whether by 6 May the electorate is simply prepared to just hold its nose.”

That’s quite a journey for a magazine which marked the advent of Nicola Sturgeon’s first ministership by branding her the ‘Angel of the North’ and running a cover posing the question ‘Can she do no wrong?’. And here’s Alex Massie, another man who’s no devosceptic but finds himself compelled by circumstances to reach for our hymn sheet:

“For this now risks becoming something greater than a mere fiasco. It is fast reaching the point at which it embarrasses all Scotland’s political parties and the institution of parliament itself. Holyrood’s committee structure is plainly incapable of dealing with issues of this kind and Scotland’s political culture has – equally obviously – failed to produce or promote representatives capable of discerning the distinction between party interest and the public interest.”

For his part, Salmond remains keen to testify. The Herald reports that he has ‘cleared his diary’ after submitting the revised version of his evidence. But he continues to insist that its publication is a precondition of his appearing before MSPs, and the Nationalists seem deeply committed to preventing that from happening.

In the meantime, the SNP have suffered from their usual brace of bad-news stories. Jeane Freeman, the Health Secretary, has been forced to deny that officials spent days ‘plotting how to spin’ an official report into care home deaths. Stephen Daisley writes about the Scottish Government’s ‘education stitch-up’, as ministers shunt the publication of an official report into education back until after the upcoming elections – although apparently the courts may yet intervene. Taxpayers apparently face a £100m bill over a bungled prosecution of businessmen involved in a takeover of Glasgow Rangers football club.

And on the party civil war side, we have Kenny MacAskill, a Nationalist MP and critic of Sturgeon, calling for the Scottish independence campaign to be formally separated from the SNP.

But as ever, the question is: will any of this make an impact on the Scottish electorate? There are some signs of a fall in poll support for independence, which is very welcome. But the Nationalists have faced a torrent of awful news stories for months without it knocking them off track to form the next Scottish Government. Clearly the unionists need to up their game – hopefully a slick new attack ad which emerged on Twitter this week is a taste of things to come.

P.S. Writing in the Times, Kenny Farquharson points out that the Government’s mooted ‘Festival of Brexit’ has been captured by the usual suspects and acquired a new working title: ‘Festival UK* 2022’. We humbly submit that if Ministers are serious about waging the ‘culture war’, they can start by making sure that a festival celebrating this country doesn’t feel the need to qualify the name of the country. Honestly.

Carlaw resigns. Counter-intuitively, the Scottish Tories may need a proper leadership contest.

30 Jul

Almost a year to the day after Ruth Davidson dramatically decided to step down as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, her successor has done the same.

Jackson Carlaw, who stepped in as interim leader before being effectively crowned in a lopsided leadership contest against Michelle Ballantyne in February, has decided that he is not the man to lead the Tories into the 2021 Scottish elections.

The immediate result is a great deal of confusion. As the Scottish Tories have two deputy leaders, at the time of writing not even the MSPs know who is stepping up as deputy leader.

More uncertain still is the question of who will succeed him. There is no obvious dauphin amongst the Scottish Parliament group, many of whom were only elected in 2016.

Adam Tomkins, one of Ruth Davidson’s most high-profile allies, is stepping down in 2021 (as is Davidson herself, at least at the time of writing) and in any event had perhaps blotted his copybook by toying with Murdo Fraser’s old idea of breaking away from the Conservative Party. (The band of Scottish Tories who believe in this plan didn’t field a candidate in February – will they this time?)

Twitter, meanwhile, is abuzz with speculation that Douglas Ross, the Member of Parliament for Moray, is about to throw his hat into the ring.

Ross, who was reportedly Davidson’s preferred successor before winning his Westminster seat, resigned from the Government in May rather than defend Dominic Cummings. This may give him some distance from the Government which may help him with Scottish voters who haven’t warmed to Boris Johnson. There is also precedent for an MP simultaneously sitting at Holyrood for a time – Alex Salmond did it between 2007 and 2010.

But would the man Downing Street sources branded ‘Mr Nobody‘, and who split with the UK close-knit leadership, be able to count on the support he’ll need from the UK Conservative machine?

All of which leads to the question of how the transition should be managed. With less than a year to go until what could be a make-or-break Holyrood poll the temptation to avoid a full contest will be strong.

But there is also a case to be made that the Party needs a fuller debate about where it is and how it got here. Carlaw’s resignation follows the planned departures of both Davidson and Tomkins and the stepping down in January of Eddie Barnes, the Tories’ long-serving ‘top spinner’.

The machine which delivered their stand-out 2016 result, of which Davidson was a necessary but not sufficient component, has been shedding parts for a while. A new leader is not the whole solution, any more than the old one was the whole problem.