‘Memogate’ MP will find it hard to resist calls to resign despite silence from some in the media, writes Lesley Riddoch
Should Alistair Carmichael resign because of “Memogate” – and if he won’t, can he be made to go?
Last week the former Scottish secretary confessed to leaking a document that made Nicola Sturgeon look two-faced – backing a progressive pact with Ed Miliband in public but confessing in private to the French Ambassador that she’d rather have David Cameron as Prime Minister. It’s now accepted by all involved – even the MP for Orkney and Shetland – there was no truth in this rumour. The only question is what should happen next – and there are a few schools of thought.
The first – promulgated largely by Carmichael – is that he should stay and get on with business as usual after the conveniently-timed Bank Holiday. The Lib Dems view the matter as closed because he has “taken responsibility and given up £17,000” – the money he was due as retiring Scottish secretary. Sadly, that cash comes nowhere near the estimated £1.4 million bill for the parliamentary inquiry that finally forced him to come clean. If money really talks, how about replacing that wasted taxpayers’ cash? Thought not.
Secondly, there’s a “plague on all their houses” response which suggests leaking documents is common political practice and hardly a resigning matter. That is unlikely. In any case, the problem is that Carmichael didn’t just leak, he lied. He didn’t just lie as a humble MP, he lied as a member of government. It wasn’t a little white lie – it possibly changed the outcome of the election in his constituency where he clung on with a majority of just 817 votes. It also tarnished political rivals.
Not the Teflon-coated First Minister but Ed Miliband – portrayed thereafter by David Cameron as a hopeless chancer, uninspiring even to erstwhile allies. That undoubtedly damaged Labour’s chances – and with another ConDem coalition in prospect, perhaps that was Carmichael’s main intent. Despite his apology, the former Scottish secretary clearly views the whole thing as small beer – these things happen – and hopes the scandal will just go away. Such a world-weary view of political life was fashionable years ago, before the referendum prompted Scots to turn out in record numbers and Russell Brand decided to vote – it doesn’t reflect the public mood anywhere now.
Thirdly, there’s the curious response of silence. It’s quite extraordinary how quickly this tasty little tale of deceit has worked its way out of the headlines. If such an escapade had been the work of an SNP minister, they would have been exposed on the front page of every daily paper until they resigned. The relative lack of outrage has led to speculation on social media that a deal has been done to make Carmichael the “human shield” for his replacement and Scotland’s lone Tory MP, David Mundell. It seems unlikely the two men could share an office but not discuss Carmichael’s wheeze – but Mundell’s role was ignored by the Commons inquiry and has hardly been tackled since. Is democracy really served by five years of suspicion about his bona fides?
But obviously, there’s another response – embraced by most newspaper leader writers and around 20,000 signatories to online petitions – suggesting Carmichael should stand down or face a new election under the Recall mechanism voted through parliament in March. According to legal academic and Yes blogger Andrew Tickell, however, the Recall of MPs Act – proposed by Nick Clegg – is not yet formally “commenced” and can’t be used. Another legal avenue is the Representation of the People Act 1983 which allows an election to be declared void if a candidate engages in “corrupt or illegal practices”. Lying about his own role in the leak could be construed as a false statement made “for the purpose of affecting the return of a candidate” – namely himself. But it would be a novel and risky application of a law designed to stop candidates blackening the names of others.
Even if a complaint was accepted, and several thousand pounds lodged as security against costs within three days, those taking the case could find themselves liable to tens of thousands of pounds if they lost and were ordered to pay the MP’s legal expenses.
Despite much song and dance about the public’s new right to recall disgraced representatives –ironically championed by Carmichael with the words, “the right to smear an opponent is not one we should be defending” – that mechanism cannot be used by voters to force another election on the northern isles. It’s suggested that both Carmichael and the Daily Telegraph journalist involved might be in breach of Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act (1989), a criminal offence which can mean up to two years imprisonment. And there has already been an appeal lodged for a formal investigation with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Do Carmichaels constituents want him out? One online petition urging Carmichael to resign has attracted ten thousand signatures in two days – but of course that includes non-islanders. Silent protests were held on Saturday in Kirkwall and Lerwick – but that might represent only the views of activists. Moves are afoot to set up a written petition amongst constituents – but that will take time. Indeed, the difficulty of testing constituents’ views without an election shows why their dilemma cannot be resolved in any other way than a re-run of the 7 May vote.
Yet some think it isn’t worth the candle. Since the Orkney and Shetland movement contested the 1987 general election, there’s been a feeling the northern isles are a place apart – beyond the sway of “ordinary” Scottish politics. Islanders voted Lib Dem for decades and voted No in the independence referendum. On 7 May Orkney backed Carmichael but Shetland broke with tradition and backed local teacher and SNP candidate Danus Skene. So where does that leave popular opinion now? One voter published in the Shetland Times says: “Mr Carmichael has shown himself to be a true modern liberal in the mould of Nick Clegg. That is someone whose word cannot be trusted and who puts self-interest above integrity.”
It would seem islanders are no longer happy to be taken for granted by the party they once trusted without a second thought. The only chance for the party – and its two local Lib Dem MSPs – is for Alistair Carmichael to put his party and constituents first and resign.