Do we need a judge-led inquiry into the Salmond affair?
The formal inquiry into the Scottish Government’s woeful mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond is entering its final weeks, and the SNP is continuing to fight it every step of the way.
Peter Murrell, the Nationalists’ chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, has declined a request from MSPs to return and try to explain the important discrepancies between his initial evidence and that of his wife – the Tories have now threatened a parliamentary vote.
Meanwhile MSPs have also James Wolffe QC, the Lord Advocate, to ask whether the Scottish Government has been censoring its evidence to the committee on political grounds, and one of the First Minister’s senior advisers has been accused of saying criminal proceedings would ‘get’ Salmond where the internal probe had failed.
There’s no doubt that something reeks about the whole affair. And it may be that Alex Salmond is able to land some serious blows when he appears before MSPs. But there is growing concern in some quarters that Scottish devolution’s checks and balances aren’t adequate to holding the Scottish Government to account. The Spectator puts it thus:
“The devolved government in Edinburgh is easily the least scrutinised ministry anywhere in the UK, if not further afield. The Scottish parliament lacks the structural robustness of the House of Commons. There is no revising chamber. Committee chairs are handpicked by party whips and there is a near-absence of checks and balances on any executive.”
That’s why the magazine is calling for a judge-led inquiry into the whole thing. Earlier in the week, Stephen Daisley made the case in more detail. For him, the crucial point is that seven of the nine MSPs serving on the current Holyrood committee are not legally trained. This is a fatal flaw in a body charged with forensically investigating a complex legal issue, and to his mind raises the question of whether or not the whole thing was designed to fail by the Scottish Government.
He concludes that: “The only way forward is for the Holyrood inquiry to be dissolved and for parliament to pass legislation requiring ministers to establish a judge-led public inquiry into this entire saga.” But will the Scottish Parliament be ready to take that step?
Downing Street shakes up the Union Unit
A surprising development this week was the sudden departure of Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, as head of Downing Street’s Union Unit.
He is apparently moving north to assist the Scottish Conservatives ahead of the upcoming Scottish elections and being replaced by Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave veteran who apparently enjoys the monicker ‘Sonic’. The FT reports that Lewis “is said by colleagues to have wanted “a clean slate” and to build a new team.” Other reports float other reasons: some suggest that Graham didn’t build alliances in government, others that he wasn’t given sufficient authority to actually do his job and direct Union policy.
What isn’t yet clear is what the change of personnel means in terms of policy. Apparently the Prime Minister wants a ‘change of tone’ when it comes to Scotland, but what does that mean? We can only hope it has nothing to do with Michael Gove’s recent meeting with Gordon Brown, and doesn’t presage any change in his well-justified policy of refusing a second referendum.
But the evidence so far is hopeful. In fact, this week the Government got more pro-active in its efforts to try and use its recent successes on the Covid-19 front to undo some of the damage wrought by its earlier failures in tackling the pandemic.
Highlighting the fact that the Scottish Government’s vaccine rollout has fallen behind the rest of the UK, Alister Jack wrote to Sturgeon to offer HM Government support. There followed a row when the Ministry of Defence announced that the Army would be taking an expanded role in the jabs programme north of the border, amidst fears that current efforts had created a ‘postcode lottery’. Gove took up the ‘stronger together’ theme in an op-ed for the Sun.
Downing Street had a further fillip this week when new analysis suggested that the economic cost of leaving the United Kingdom would weigh three times more heavily on Scotland than those associated with Brexit, offering them a useful line of counter-attack against the SNP’s efforts to woo No/Remain voters.
In the meantime there is the usual brace of stories about SNP misgovernment. Its response to an inquiry into the mishandling of a high-profile ferry contract has been criticised, whilst the Courier reports that school teaching materials featuring the Nationalists’ logo have been branded ‘politically biased’. There was also the sacking of Joanna Cherry, which I covered earlier in the week.