So, are you corrupt or just incompetent?
DOWNFALL: PART I
THE First Minister sat hunched on the leather sofa in his wood-panelled art deco office in St Andrew’s House. There were papers strewn on the coffee table in front of him and a box of tissues. His eyes were red raw.
On a normal day when I went to see him as he arrived in the office where, since before the War many of the decisions that have effected Scotland have been taken, there would have been an upbeat good morning.
The First Minister would have asked what "they" were writing about him and expected a concise media summary from me as his Press Secretary.
That day, Thursday, 8 November, he barely acknowledged me as I came in to the office with Colin Currie, his speech writer. “I’m not in a good way, guys,” he said. He did not make eye contact.
We had agreed the night before to meet at 8am to go through the draft that Currie and John McLaren, a fellow special adviser, had put together for a debate in parliament on what had become known as Officegate. Currie and McLaren had been working on a robust defence of the First Minister following his “full disclosure” press conference less than 48 hours earlier.
Now, as he held back the tears, McLeish told us that, as he spent the night before alone in Bute House, the beautiful Georgian residence in Charlotte Square he loved, he had come to a terrible decisio. The word came eventually: “Resignation.”
It was the first time I heard the First Minister use the expression. Currie, McLaren, John McTernan – McLeish’s head of strategy – and my deputy, Tom Little, were all in the office.
None of us could look the First Minister in the eye. For us, too, emotions were close to the surface. None of us who had worked for him through a tumultuous year had wanted to hear it.
We had witnessed the highs and the lows. We knew that, like all politicians, Henry Baird McLeish had weaknesses as well as strengths.
But it was too soon. There was so much unfinished business.
That November morning, none of his advisers could bear the sight of a man we worked for and whom we liked, in this state of mind.
As the First Minister’s press secretary, appointed just a year before from my job as Political Editor of the Mirror in London, I knew there would be difficult times. I went into “spin-doctoring” with my eyes open. This would be the hardest day of all.
The resignation of a First Minister not much more than a year after he had succeeded Donald Dewar. Downfall after promising the Scottish parliament and the country he would not let them down.
As the First Minister was in such a fragile state, I rang his wife, Julie Fulton, who was at their home in St Andrews. It was clear that he had not yet broken the news to his wife. I told her as gently as I could that he was about to resign.
Julie was defiant. “But he’s done nothing wrong. He should fight on. He can’t let the media bring him down.”
I admired her fighting spirit, but explained there had been a sixth and so far undisclosed sub-let of what had become the best-known political office in Scotland, 14 Hanover Court, Glenrothes. What made it crucial was that it had not been acknowledged earlier that week when McLeish had made what he called “full disclosure”.
I told her: “He is going to resign and he needs you here to be with him.” The explanation seemed to open her eyes. “Well, I’d better come down then,” she said in the business-like manner which was to make an unbearable day just about bearable.
And, for the second time in 12 hours, I called Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy, who had just returned from Washington with the Prime Minister. I had spoken to Campbell the night before, while he was in the US, to tell him I thought resignation was inevitable. This time, it was to confirm.
Campbell said McLeish should ring Blair in the car as he made his way back to Downing Street.
After global diplomacy, the Prime Minister had quickly returned to the realities of British politics. Their conversation was private and brief, but Blair told McLeish: “I’m so sorry, Henry”. He offered what support he could.
The First Minister also spoke to his long-time political ally, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor. Brown told him: “This is a tragedy”. He promised to see McLeish soon.
McLeish had found these phone calls difficult enough but there was still a speech to be prepared. Currie – who had written speeches for Brown since they were at university –and McLaren came back with another draft and we read it through with the First Minister.
The version presented.It was still concerned too much with the details of Officegate, and I suggested it needed to be broader, to reflect the enormity of resignation. Currie and McTernan acknowledged that I was right. Yet another redraft was begun.
Outside, in what was usually a bustling private office, there was hush. The First Minister’s Private Secretary, John Mason, was doing what the civil service is good at doing – seeing to the formalities. A letter to the Queen had to be drafted. And one to Sir David Steel, the parliament’s Presiding Officer.
The words of resignation were dry and formal. Reading the drafts, you would have thought a First Minister resigned almost every day: the terse, formal language completely at odds with the events they were describing.
And then there was the political dimension.Earlier, I had alerted Tom McCabe, the minister for parliament, and Angus MacKay, the finance minister, both close allies of McLeish.
Around 10am, they arrived to offer their support and to help manage the day.
Jack McConnell, narrowly defeated by McLeish for the Labour leadership and still his political rival, turned up unannounced. MacKay bristled when he saw McConnell. No-one seemed to know why he was there. The tension was palpable as the man most likely to succeed him, saw McLeish and expressed his condolences.
Later, a tearful Wendy Alexander arrived, rushing straight into the office. She embraced McLeish.
At the entrance to the office, with the First Minister a bystander, there was a fraught discussion on what to tell parliament, which was still expecting a debate on Officegate.
My view was that MSPs should be told only that the FM was to make a personal statement that afternoon. McCabe, whose judgment I respected, disagreed, as did McConnell. They both argued that MSPs should be told what was about to happen, and I relented.
At 11am, McCabe stood up and, on a point of order, told MSPs: “I inform the chamber that the First Minister has this morning written to Her Majesty the Queen and to the Presiding Officer indicating that he intends to tender his resignation. The First Minister intends to come to parliament later today to make a personal statement.”
There was a stunned silence in the chamber, but those few words caused pandemonium. The pagers which Little and I carried everywhere went into meltdown as every journalist in Scotland tried to find out more. We decided we should say nothing. It was hardly for us to explain when the FM would do so shortly.
The pace quickened. Iain Gray, a Labour deputy minister in the justice department, arrived around midday to help with the final draft of the FM’s address. In McTernan's fourth-floor office, where we had met to discuss the policies to take us up to the 2003 elections and beyond - plans that would now be jeopardised - we went through it once again.
Although reluctant, Gray read the speech aloud so that we could gauge its impact. After a couple of final changes, I took it up to the First Minister’s Office.
McLeish had now recovered enough to order food. Amid the trauma, there sat the soon to be ex-First Minister of Scotland eating a sausage roll, bridie and chips from the canteen on the floor above – the meal that the press was to dub “the Last Supper”.
“If I’m going to do this I’m going to do it on a full stomach,” he told me. We both laughed for the first time that day.
McLeish’s mood had also been bolstered by speaking to his son, Niall, and his daughter, Clare, in Germany. Julie arrived from St Andrews and swept into the office. She was composed and very positive.
We left the two of them alone, but then Currie, clutching a clipboard with the words in front of him, insisted on a run-through.
McLeish assembled a makeshift despatch box, placing two Saltire-blue ministerial boxes on the meeting table in his room. As Currie, McTernan, Julie and I watched, he put his suit jacket on and read, beautifully, the words that would end his career.
We could not hold back the tears. Even Mason, the archetypal detached civil servant, looked down and polished his glasses. We had just witnessed the dress rehearsal for the final act in a political tragedy.
McLeish fortified himself with a stiff malt whisky. Then, we left for parliament.
I watched as the First Minister walked alone down the steps to his place on the front bench opposite the Presiding Officer. There was half-hearted, rather embarrassed, applause.
As his wife and I watched from the gallery in front of him, he rose to speak. To a silent chamber, he again acknowledged his mistakes over the sub-lets and the way in which he had handled that matter.
He said: “What is important is that I take full personal responsibility. Others who worked with and for me have been criticised, but the ultimate responsibility is mine and mine alone. I recognise the mistakes that I made.”
Those who worked for him did accept our share of responsibility, but McLeish was making it clear that he shouldered the ultimate blame. In the end, advisers can advise but ministers decide.
As the Tories who had pursued the First Minister from the first revelation looked on, McLeish continued: “I came to parliament, and eventually to the office of First Minister, to serve my constituents and all the people of Scotland. If I have let them down in this matter, I hope that I have served them well in many others.”
At the end, with agriculture minister Ross Finnie and MacKay and McCabe forming a guard to prevent any Tories trying to shake his hand, he left the chamber. He walked through the black and white corridor, between cordoned-off journalists, and down the steps
to the car waiting under the disapproving stare of John Knox.
Holding Julie’s hand, as he had on the day he was elected, Henry Baird McLeish left the office of First Minister behind.
Had this been a normal First Ministerial statement I would have returned to "the black and white" as it had become known to speak to journalists to explain the First Minister's view. Though I never liked the term, "spin-doctoring" is how it is known.
But I had nothing to say that would help them that day. Indeed I might well have said some strong words to some who had masqueraded as McLeish's friends in the early days but viciously turned on him as he ran into difficulties.
I met up with Little, and we headed off towards the Mound pursued by group of photographers, who elbowed each other in the ribs to get the pictures. If they had asked us to stop, we would have done so.
We went to a pub in Market Street. “Here’s to Henry,” I said. As we sipped a large whisky, my phone rang. It was Godric Smith, Alastair Campbell’s civil service deputy, asking what “the line” was on the resignation.
“The line is that we’re having a whisky and the First Minister has resigned,” I told him. Smith seemed less than pleased at my tone, so I helped him with some of the facts and he rang off.
As we sipped our drinks Little and I talked about what might have been and what should have been. That day had been intended to be the final phase in the McLeish fightback against the allegations that had dogged him since before the British general election.
We agreed it was ironic that the Officegate saga had been undermining what was beginning to be seen as a more focused and competent administration. And my mind went back to the first story about that office that no-one – his aides, the First Minister, the media – had taken as seriously as they should have.
I took a call on my mobile from Matthew Knowles, a reporter on the Mail on Sunday. I had never heard of him.
Knowles, who was about to become the bane of my life, put to me that McLeish had benefited by renting out his constituency offices at 14 Hanover Court, Glenrothes, to a firm of lawyers which had once employed Labour MP Douglas Alexander. I took down the details of what was a rather odd call, and phoned the First Minister.
To my annoyance, I discovered that he knew that the Mail on Sunday had been making inquiries and had kept it to himself.
He said that the money had gone into an account set up for his office and that he had not benefited personally. When I spoke to McLeish that first Saturday, he seemed reluctant to divulge much, even to me.
Though I told him the story was likely to be followed up, he said he would register the facts with the Commons authorities. That would be the end of it.
Of course it was not the end but only the very beginning. If only. Instead, the story did provoke a series of other pieces, and set the Mail on Sunday in particular on a trail which led to that fateful day on the Mound.
But, as we approached the general election, journalists had turned their attention elsewhere. Until late October. Then, the Daily Mail, helped by David McLetchie’s spin-doctors, revealed that McLeish had reached a deal with the Commons Fees Office.
Following the pattern, I took the call from the journalist and knew nothing of the story. Again, I had to phone the First Minister to ask him if it was true, and initially he confirmed only that he had reached “an agreement”.
At first I thought that it would be enough to say this but soon realised that the FM had to say in public how much he was going to pay the fees office.
He told me that it would amount to 9,000.It was an explanation which he gave – in rather more detail – in parliament the following Thursday. Under pressure from John Swinney, the SNP leader, and McLetchie, he told MSPs that the matter of Digby Brown was closed.
And in a deliberate challenge to the opposition, whom he accused of gutter politics, he challenged them to raise the matter in parliamentary time: “I am saying: ‘Put up or shut up. Pick a debate and let us respond’.”
McLetchie knew that he had the First Minister on the run and ridiculed him: “…in relation to the use of the constituency office, we had the defence of ignorance – ‘I didnae ken; it wisnae me; a big boy did it and ran away’.”
It was one of the Tory leader’s most effective attacks and made us think even more carefully about the appearance of the First Minister on BBC Question Time. By co-incidence, it was to be broadcast from Glasgow that very night, 1 November.
Two weeks earlier, I considered McLeish had weathered the storm sufficiently well. If he had refused to do the programme, it might have leaked and people could have said he had something to hide.
The First Minister was enthusiastic and he changed his schedule to fit it in.
It was the right decision at the time, but it is one which, given the difficult time he was having
as the broadcast date approached, which I now regret. For the Question Time appearance was to set in train the final act of the events which led to the downfall of the First Minister.
Knowing that David Dimbleby would be no pushover and there would be a UK-wide audience, I insisted there should be time set aside in the busy First Ministerial diary for detailed preparation.
We spent one hour on the Wednesday going over the ground with both McLaren and McTernan. We followed this with a further hour on the Thursday, and we went back over the questions with the First Minister’s civil service press aide, David Hamilton, in the car on the way to Glasgow.
I told the First Minister there would be a question on Officegate, and that in my opinion he should say no more than he had said at First Minister’s Questions that day and in previous media interviews. He appeared to be content, and I took his silence for much of the journey as mental preparation.
McLeish's performance was appalling. He looked ill at ease from the start.
To our horror, he squirmed and fidgeted. He passed his fingers under the collar of his shirt. The twitch which he used to have but which had disappeared as he had grown in confidence re-appeared.
Pressed by Dimbleby if the 9,000 which he had promised to repay was the end of the matter, or if he had received any other money, McLeish should have stuck to the previous answers, as we had agreed. Instead, he replied: “I don’t know what the sum involved was.”
It was a devastating admission. That it was left to his fellow panellist, Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, to step in to rescue him – albeit in a rather patronising way – made the appearance all the more humiliating.
As usual with Question Time, there was a hostile and partisan audience made up of supporters of the opposition parties. That did not help.
However, But McLeish was a politician of 25 years’ experience. He had faced several media and parliamentary grillings on this issue.
He should have been able to cope, but I should have forced him to face up to even more intense preparation. For that, I take responsibility.
That night, after a glass of wine with Dimbleby, the First Minister, Hamilton and I took the ministerial car back to Edinburgh. We drove in almost complete silence. McLeish knew it had been a very poor performance. There was no need to tell him.
I had always had reservations about the way he had been handling Officegate. After Question Time, I became convinced that, if we were not to lose a First Minister, whatever it took, he had to be persuaded to get all the facts out.
The next morning's papers were relatively tame. Question Time was broadcast very late and so there were not as many references to it as there might have been.
But, the next day’s evening papers picked up the story and ran with it hard. The Evening News in Edinburgh printed a series of pictures of the FM squirming under the Dimbleby lights on their front page.
In the A4 notebook that I carried everywhere, I wrote down two options under 2 November. One: full disclosure. Two: batten down the hatches until the parliamentary debate due on Thursday. I had always been in favour of option one. The programme and the subsequent
The scenes when the FM went to make an announcement on housing stock transfer that Friday - Bernard Ponsonby of Scottish Television nearly burst a blood vessel he shouted at him so much during an unseemly media scrum - convinced me that I was right.
That afternoon we convened what journalists are fond of calling a crisis meeting. In this instance, they would have been right.
Present in the utilitarian sixth-floor office that McLeish used in Meridian Court, Glasgow, were the party’s general secretary in Scotland, Lesley Quinn, the FM, McLaren, McTernan, Little and me. Quinn was her usual blunt and forthright self. She had been through a similar process with the then Scottish Secretary, John Reid, over another “gate” – the so-called Lobbygate affair. Her advice, delivered in her inimitable style, was that there should be full disclosure; that we should “baffle the journalists with facts”, as Reid had done.
That day for the first time, the First Minister began to tell us what we came to believe was the full story.
Consulting sheaves of papers stuffed into a couple of large carrier bags which served as his personalbriefcases, there had, he said, been five sub-lets between 1988 and the present time. It represented, he said, a total somewhere between 32,000 and 34,000, including the 9,000 from Digby Brown. Up until 1995, his late wife Margaret had done the books for his office account, and so he was not aware of much of the detail before then. We discussed the matter further and came to the conclusion that there should be full disclosure.
The First Minister told us: “I would be happier coming out with a full package and disclosing it with humility.”
At no stage did anyone there propose what at least one journalist has claimed would be the "dead wife defence" - to blame the problems on the First Minister's late first wife.
We were making progress at last and agreed that a team should meet at Bute House the next day to look into every possible detail.
While all of this was going on journalists, with that instinct for the scent of blood, continued to make their enquiries.
Meanwhile, Councillor Christine May, the leader of Fife Council, paged me urgently. When I got back to her, she told me she was under media and opposition party pressure to release the details of the lease that the council had held for office space at Hanover Court.
I advised her it would be helpful if that information was not released until next week. She reluctantly agreed.
Little and I agreed a holding position for media inquiries. It was that, as McLeish had said all along, there had been no personal gain to him; that the Digby Brown arrangement was now had issued a statement setting out the arrangement which had now been put into in abeyance, and that the last two cheques had not been deposited. And thatThe First Minister would also be happy to answer any questions the Tories wanted to put to him in parliament the following week. That he was happy to respond now that they had "put up".
We both knew they were holding lines which would not hold for long.
On the night of2 November, the First Minister attended a fundraising dinner in honour of Sam Galbraith, organised by the former minister’s successor as MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, Brian Fitzpatrick. Despite the pressure which was no on him, and the knowledge that he was working to save his career, McLeish was on good form. He told the dinner that he has been unable to make a contribution to Sam’s gift, as he was “a bit strapped for cash at the moment”.
As always when he had attended an event which involved getting out and about to meet people - activists or members of the public - McLeish was in better form when we gathered in Bute House on the Saturday
We arrived at Bute House the following crisp Saturday morning. to begin a combination of investigative journalism and a company audit. John McLaren, in his meticulous way, had prepared a long list of questions which needed to be asked – and provided some of the answers that we knew already. Across the several A4 pages, of A4 paper, John’s notes demonstrated that the more it was thought through, the more questions came to mind. It was clear We were in for a long haul.
The First Minister arrived from Fife. McTernan, McLaren, Little and I had an initial discussion with him in the small sitting room on the second floor. We agreed that this was going to be a testing time, and that he should be prepared to make a detailed statement– probably to a broadcaster – early the next week. , probably Monday.
But we also realised that the financial detail was such that our assembled skills would not be enough.
Currie rang the Chancellor. Brown , who was also a supporter of McLeish, was of the view that this matter was largely got up by the media and should be killed. He offered to help in whatever way he could and came up with the name of a senior accountant who could help.
The accountant and a colleague arrived at Bute House on Sunday morning and immediately went downstairs to the high-ceilinged drawing room to work with the McLeish. The First Minister did not ask McTernan or Ime to be present. He obviously considered this such a deeply personal matter that neither of us forced the point.
A politician relies on being elected as the bedrock of his career. That relationship between elected representative and constituency is rather like a marriage. Outsiders are best not to interfere with it.
It was my job to know everything the FM was doing in government - and I just about did. But even I was reluctant to delve too deeply in the "marriage" between Henry McLeish and Central Fife, which he had represented since 1987.
During both Saturday and Sunday, we continued to receive calls from journalists. As we sat in the tiny office beside the drawing room, which became increasingly cluttered with papers, Little took the calls as we wanted to give the impression of normality. As I heard him speaking to a string of journalists I had to refrain giving the answers to him. Had they known we were both working over the weekend, their suspicions might have been aroused. As it was, a large number of advisers and the First Minister of Scotland spent a whole weekend in Bute House and not one journalist bothered to check or to doorstep it.
On the Saturday afternoon, some of the FM’s closest supporters gathered for a political meeting. Jackie Baillie, McCabe, MacKay and Gray arrived for a behind-closed-doors discussion over coffee and biscuits.
I did not attend the meeting, but I spoke to Baillie in the tiny kitchen at the back of the second floor. I told her that I thought the FM was coming to the conclusion that he would have to offer to pay back far more than 9,000, and that it could amount to more than 30,000.
Baillie, whom I had come to admire as a politician who could take hard decisions, summed up the view of those who depended on McLeish and feared his downfall. “Well, that’s just tough,” she said without remorse. She was right.
By the time Sunday night came, the atmosphere had lightened. We had a substantial question-and-answer script. We thought that the FM had told us the answers to most of the questions that could be thrown at him.
the FM by the media. Although we had not decided yet whom we would contact in the media we thought we should sleep on it.
We ordered fish suppers, which Little went to collect. The FM poured the Chardonnay.
As all of us were so close to the issue, I decided that we needed someone who was not involved to come to Bute House early on Monday to do a mock interview with the FM before we made the final decision to go. I phoned a former journalist now in the communications business and he agreed to do it.
We were beginning to feel confident that we could get through. We left Bute House about 8pm.
I headed for home happier, but still worried. I had told the FM that day when I saw him alone briefly that it had to be full disclosure. Nothing less would do. I knew that McTernan and Little had said the same.
I woke the next morning after a night of fitful sleep – most nights had been fitful that week – to find a story in both the Times and the Scottish Mirror that the FM was that day going to make a full statement about Officegate. I called Little and asked him where he thought the Angus MacLeod of the Times and the Mirror’s Lorraine Davidson, who often hunted as a pair, had got the stories. I was sure that the FM himself was behind them. I asked him directly and was far from convinced by his denials.
I subsequently learned that I was right. Against all my advice, he had been speaking to journalists without my knowledge. McLeish had always been readily available, to journalists but, when you become First Minister, that has to change. For your own good, there has to be one source of information – about you from the person you choose to speak to the media on your behalf.
Yet even at this time when his career was on the line, McLeish was prepared to put at risk a strategy which depended on surprise by trying to spin his way out of a crisis to people he thought were his friends in the media. He had made his way throughout his time in politics by feeding stories, and it seemed almost like a drug to him.
As I had watched the story of the office costs escalate from something relatively minor to an issue that threatened his career, I found McLeish’s apparent inability to see the danger puzzling and frustrating. He kept the detail so close, shared information only when he was forced to, and dealt with the Commons authorities by himself. It was one of the few matters he did not allow his aides and advisers to get involved in.
Was it that this most media savvy of politicians did not realise that, because he was First Minister, he was a target and would be subject to more scrutiny than most politicians?
Was it that he hoped that if he stalled or ignored the story it would just go away?
Was it that he, like most MPs of his generation, did not want every last detail of his office costs and Westminster allowance claims examined for fear of the conclusions that might be drawn? Or was it that there was more to it that met the eye?
I was never able to answer these questions, but as I approached the rear entrance to Bute House in the car that Monday morning, I slowed down, but then put my foot back on the accelerator and drove past. I later read the stories in more detail and was furious.
I determined that these leaks - and some coverage of me that mentioned details about my family which were of no relevance whatsoever to by job with the FM - were just too much, and I considered resignation. But after discussions with McCabe and eventually with McLeish himself, I agreed to return to Bute House the next day.
This was not some kind of Alastair Campbell 24-carat breakdown, but it was a sign that the strain was beginning to tell. Withdrawing in those hours is something I regret doing.
I apologised to McLeish when I arrived at Bute House of Tuesday morning. He was not bitter and MCLEISH told me he knew I had been under pressure because of what I was doing for him. “I’ve got the constitution of an ox,” he told me. “Others like you are just normal people. I noticed you were feeling the strain.”
Others might not have been so forgiving. But My absence had at least given me a greater detachment, which I put to good use in the final mock interview with him that morning, asking pointed questions about the Officegate details. My first question to him was: “First Minister, are you corrupt or just incompetent?”
The previous night, I had been called by Alastair Campbell, a former colleague on the Mirror Group. Tony Blair's combative communications chief.
It was Downing Street's job to know everything and I explained to Alastair , a former colleague on Mirror Group, whom I had known for many years professionally, what was happening.
I explained that we were planning to put out in hugedetail all the facts about the sub-lets. I said We were thinking that we should give perhapsone or two television interviews, and leave it at that.
Alastair, who had lived through crises like the Bernie Ecclestone affair and Peter Mandelson’s resignations, advised that we should do a press conference as well. If the First Minister was making a full and detailed disclosure, then he should be able to appear in front of the group Alastair's boss Tony Blair once described to me as “unreconstructed wankers”, the Scottish press corps.
On the Tuesday morning after the final question session with me, listened to by the ever-fastidious McLaren, Little and I called Brian Taylor, the Political Editor of BBC Scotland, Michael Crowe of Scottish Television and Colin MacKay of Radio Clyde. We agreed that these three should be given access earlier than the print journalists. We set up the interviews in the drawing room overlooking Charlotte Square and said they could have 15 to 20 minutes each – virtually unprecedented for broadcasters and deliberately aimed at preventingnipping in the bud allegations that the FM had anything to hide. through a curtailed interview.
I sat out of camera shot as he spoke to Taylor. He told the BBC‘s Political Editor: “I take responsibility. It should have been quicker and it should have been done better. What I am seeking to do today is to put into the public domain all the information.”
McLeish denied an allegation that his office had been used for party political campaigning.
And, using a soundbite that he had come up with and which I did not like, he said: “There certainly was muddle, but there has been no fiddle.”
Ominously but unintentionally, McLeish described his failure to register the sub-lets initially as "a fatal mistake" and added: "I look forward to continuing as First Minister. It has been a very good first 12 months."
In the interview with Crowe, who styles himself as a harder-nosed questioner, McLeish again repeated that he was putting all the information out and added that he would pay back any money which the House of Commons authorities asked him to do.
My shorthand note recorded the words he used - words he had told us he would use and words we had urged him to use. He said he would not resign adding: "I hope with full disclosure I can apply myself completely to the big issues."
But before he could do that there was the small matter of the unreconstructed ones.That afternoon, I chaired what we anticipated would be a rough press conference. Before it, Little had handed out to each journalist there a detailed dossier – in a bright yellow plastic folder – of all the information there had been on the Glenrothes office.
The First Minister answered questions confidently for 40 minutes, including several from the Daily Mail which had been pursuing the case relentless, fed by the Tory party and McLetchie's team of media advisers.
He survived, a little bruised, but largely unscathed. Indeed, some of the questions I had asked him in the warm-up had been harder.
We departed left the drawing room relieved. Subsequent conversations with journalists indicated McLeish would get a hard time from the newspapers the next day, but that even the Daily Mail thought this strategy would finally draw a line under the sorry saga.
As the Cabinet assembled for the regular Tuesday meeting that seemed to be the mood. We were relieved and began to hope that we could get on with the business of government.
I was beginning to think about that afternoon’s the Cabinet meeting, which I always attended, when McTernan drew me to one side. He looked worried. “Can we have a quiet word?”
We to find somewhere private on the second floor, but the place was filling up with civil servants and politicians, so we went up to the landing on the third floor where there are extra bedrooms. We sat down at the top of the stairs.
“I’ve just come off the phone to someone,” McTernan told me. his voice worryingly devoid of emotion. “There was another sub-let. It was to a charity for older people. I’ve just spoken to the womenwoman who helped set it up.”
It took just a couple of seconds for the news to sink in. I put my head in my hands. “That’s it, then. He’s finished.”
The two senior political advisers to Scotland's first Minister We sat, feet propped up against the ornate banister and contemplated the awful reality. We agreed not to tell him that we knew. There seemed little point. I figured that, even if we had put out urgent clarification that day, there would be uproar, and new and probably fatal questions over McLeish's fitness for office.
It was not so much the sum involved or the addition of another let. It was that the First Minister, who had told Dimbleby that he did not know the sums involved but then promised to divulge the full facts, would, again, appear to have something to hide.
McTernan and I went to Cabinet as usual. There were major issues on the agenda, including water charges under the single water company and the executive’s response to the UK government plans for tougher laws on crime and religious hatred in response to 11 September.
My normally thorough note of the proceedings stretched to barely a couple of pages, instead of the usual four or five. I wondered if my snap judgment at the top of the stairs – where McLeish and his ministers had posed for photographs just the year before – had been wrong, the product of tiredness and over-work. Was there a way out? Could he escape this one? If there was one, I could not think of it.
The FM left us in a n apparent good mood, promising to take me with him to a rugby legends event the following night.
That night, I received a phone call from McLeish’s long-standing constituency secretary, Gwen Newell. She had taken a call from Linda Struthers, his agent in 1987. Struthers, who had earlier rung McTernan, was being approached by the press and had told Newell she also remembered the sub-let to a group called the Third Age, which worked for old people. Struthers had told the press nothing about it. But she feared a disillusioned former member of the Third Age group might recall it and go to the media.
Gwen also told me she had contacted been in touch with McLeish to tell him this. He had not mentioned it to me before he left Bute House in an apparently good mood.
I rang McTernan at home to confirm how much had been paid to McLeish in rent by the Third Age group. He told me it was 300 a quarter. All my instincts told me that this new revelation was bound to be discoveredby a journalist sooner or later.
On the Wednesday morning, McTernan and I told the FM that we both knew of the sixth sub-let. I told him that, in my judgment, the situation was “very, very bad”. He The FM just nodded, and lapsed into silence.
Earlier I had told Little, who sat immediately beside me, when there was no one else in our office. Little, who had been my loyal, hard-working deputy, put his head in his hands. "Now, I feel like crying," he said.
Late that afternoon, I learned that came the call that confirmed what I had expected. Struthers had been contacted about Third Age by a persistent reporter. Tom Gordon, the persistent and thorough chief reporter on The Herald. She had stalled, but he already knew the details.
The FM was already at Holyrood Palace attending a rugby dinner, so I did not page him. But I knew that this would be the fatal blow. and that it might be in the next day's Herald.
That night, having established that it would be appearing the next day, I contacted Downing Street because I was sure that the FM would have to resign even if he had not yet come to that conclusion. Campbell came on the line via the famous No 10 switchboard which can find just about anyone anywhere in the world.
“So you’ve pulled me out of a dinner with President Bush to tell me what?” Campbell fumed, his sentence full of expletives. I knew, however, that this was always his style. He simply would not have taken the call if he thought it was unimportant.
I told him bluntly: “I think that tomorrow the First Minister will have to resign.” “Why?” “Because there has been a sixth sub-let and his press conference was not full disclosure as he said it was.”
Campbell paused, advised me to ring the FM and tell him about the reporter’s inquiries. “Then give him that to sleep on,” he said, and went back to dinner in the White House, where Blair was being feted for his support for the US after 11 September.
I rang Bute House around midnight. McLeish was apparently defiant. “We will say that we have contacted the fees office in the morning,” he said, but I could tell that his heart was not in it. that he knew the situation was bad though I do not know if he had made the final decision by then.
I told him to sleep on it, but sleep was the last thing Henry McLeish was going to do on his last night in Bute House. He was alone. And a dreadful day of reckoning lay ahead of him.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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