In the clear (for now)
IT WAS a simple statement of only a dozen short paragraphs. But when it appeared on computer screens at 2:30pm yesterday, it caused shouts of joy and celebration among embattled Labour MSPs at the Scottish Parliament.
The Electoral Commission's long-awaited judgment on Wendy Alexander concluded it was "not appropriate or in the public interest" to report her to the procurator-fiscal. While Labour's Scottish leader was rebuked for not doing enough to check on the legality of a donation, she was effectively given the all-clear to remain in her job.
Labour MSPs were delighted that, at last, something had gone right for them. Ms Alexander was buoyant; she had been cleared, if not completely exonerated, and No10 was relieved. Gordon Brown knew he could not afford to lose another senior figure after the departure of Peter Hain over another donations scandal.
Ms Alexander's political career had been in jeopardy since she admitted in November last year that she had accepted an illegal donation of 950 from a Jersey-based businessman during her leadership campaign.
She still has to wait for the procurator-fiscal's ruling over her failure to report her campaign donations to the Holyrood register of members' interests, and she is also likely to face a standards committee investigation.
But neither of these inquiries carries the weight of the Electoral Commission. Now it has reported in her favour, Ms Alexander will feel the worst of this affair is behind her.
There had been a clear acknowledgement in Labour circles that, had the commission referred the issue to the Crown Office and the police, Ms Alexander would have had to follow Welsh Secretary Mr Hain's example and quit.
The Paisley North MSP admitted yesterday that she had considered resigning as the furore over the donation raged around her, hurting her friends and colleagues, but she insisted her thoughts of quitting were "not in any meaningful sense".
She said: "You get tested in the tough times, not in the easy times. I have admitted a mistake was made and I think the public rather like politicians who admit they make mistakes sometimes.
"This (Electoral Commission] statement clears me of any intentional wrongdoing," she added. "My honesty and integrity have been confirmed by this judgment."
A relieved Ms Alexander admitted the furore had been "a salutary and bruising experience" and repeated her apology to her party and colleagues for the distraction of the donations row.
However, she stressed her determination to continue as leader: "I will not walk away from my party, or the people of Scotland, while there remains a job to be done in restoring social justice to the top of the political agenda."
The commission's judgment represents a major success for Ms Alexander, who will now hope to start the process of rebuilding confidence, both in her leadership and Scottish Labour.
But it is also a significant victory for Charlie Gordon, the Labour MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, who solicited the cheque from Paul Green, the Channel Islands businessman, in the first place.
There had been speculation Ms Alexander would be cleared but Mr Gordon would not – because an illegal donation had been received and Mr Gordon was responsible for securing it.
But when the commission issued its report, both Mr Gordon and Ms Alexander were cleared of any offence. A previous cheque from Mr Green, which Mr Gordon accepted for his own election campaign in May last year, is still under investigation by the Electoral Commission. While he might find himself censured in the future, his escape from prosecution yesterday will save Labour from a potentially disastrous by-election.
The commission's decision to give Ms Alexander nothing more than an admonishment will allow Labour leaders to feel they have halted the bad news over donations, at least for the time being. But Ms Alexander knows she faces a difficult task to restore her credibility as a leader, because there are still serious questions being asked about her performances in the parliament.
There was genuine anger among some Labour MSPs yesterday over her baffling decision to abstain on the Scottish Government's Budget, having opposed it until the final debate. That sort of decision, as well as her often hesitant performances at First Minister's Questions, leave her with much to do to convince her party that she can really lead it back to power.
Opposition politicians warned that her leadership was still in crisis, despite the commission's decision.
Alex Salmond, the First Minister, claimed it represented a "not proven" rather than a not guilty verdict, and said: "This whole affair has been hugely damaging to Wendy Alexander's leadership of the Labour Party."
Roseanna Cunningham, the SNP MSP who has been one of Ms Alexander's harshest critics during this donations row, said: "She is not out of the woods. There is a long way to go before she is clear of this issue. Her leadership is in serious difficulty and this does not get her off the hook."
Murdo Fraser, for the Tories, said: "Ultimately, the Scottish public will cast their verdict." And Mike Rumbles, a Lib Dem MSP, said: "The Electoral Commission's conclusions underline the lack of transparency and openness which has dogged Labour politicians, including Wendy Alexander."
Ms Alexander yesterday published full details of all but one of the donations to her leadership campaign last summer, insisting one donor wanted to remain anonymous and that was their right.
There were 20 donations, all for less than 1,000 – the threshold at which they have to be reported to the Electoral Commission – and there was one fundraising dinner, which raised 1,000. A total of 15,323 was raised for her campaign which, she said, was to fund a countrywide tour to talk to activists.
Ms Alexander said Mr Gordon had brought in the donation from Mr Green, but she had raised questions about it when she was asked to sign a thank-you letter for it. It is understood it was this e-mail to Mr Gordon, questioning the donation, that convinced the Electoral Commission that Ms Alexander had taken significant steps to verify the legality of the cheque.
CATCH-UP: THE WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE AND WHEN OF INVESTIGATION
THE Electoral Commission was called in to investigate a 950 donation to Wendy Alexander's leadership campaign last summer.
It came from Paul Green, a Jersey-based businessman not allowed to donate to UK political parties as he is not on the electoral roll.
The commission considered whether the law had been broken on two grounds.
The first was under section 56 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which is about "accepting and retaining" a donation from someone who is not on the UK electoral roll.
The second was under section 61 of the act, which deals with "concealing or disguising" any impermissible donations.
The commission concluded that, under section 56, Ms Alexander had not done everything she could to find out whether the donation was legal, but she had taken "significant steps", and this was enough to clear of wrongdoing in this case.
Under section 61, the commission concluded there was "not sufficient evidence to establish an offence had been committed" and Ms Alexander was cleared here too.
However, Ms Alexander has also been reported to the procurator-fiscal for failing to declare her campaign donations in the register of members' interests at Holyrood.
This was done by Jim Dyer, the Holyrood Standards Commissioner, despite the fact that Ms Alexander had been told by clerks to the standards committee that she did not need to declare the donations.
Last night, the SNP raised the possibility of an inquiry by Holyrood's standards committee, but that has not been confirmed.
Little bit of back-stabbing does whole lot of damage
Analysis: Hamish Macdonell
DUNCAN McNeil, the Labour whip, was just trying to be helpful. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.
Intervening to prevent Wendy Alexander from having to answer questions about her damaged standing in the party, Mr McNeil declared: "There has been relatively little back-stabbing about this."
The party line has always been to present a united front but, in one moment, Mr McNeil ripped that to pieces and conceded at least a small level of serious discontent within the party about Ms Alexander's leadership.
She has been cleared of any criminal activity by the Electoral Commission, and that affair is now largely behind her.
But there are bigger issues for her to face and remaining questions about her leadership which she will have to answer, the first being her Scottish Constitutional Commission, the body she has championed to push for more powers for the Scottish Parliament.
Ms Alexander has yet to persuade Des Browne, the Scottish Secretary, of the worth of the commission and must also convince the Scottish Labour Party.
The crunch will come at the end of March when the party meets for its annual conference.
Ms Alexander hopes that the commission will be in place by then, but she will still have to stand by it and argue for it, in the face of some entrenched opposition from her own party.
Then there are her parliamentary performances, particularly the extraordinary decision two days ago to table a weak amendment and then to abstain on a Budget which the party had opposed for three months.
This decision, and the fallout which resulted in a deluge of criticism for Labour, has caused resentment among Labour MSPs.
One Labour MSP said: "If you are faced with a bully, you stand up to the bully; you don't try to play along with them."
It is understood that when the shadow cabinet took the decision to table an amendment and then abstain on the Budget, at least two front-benchers argued against it, but were overruled.
Those two front-benchers have since been joined by several other back-benchers in criticising the decision privately.
It is clear that Ms Alexander has to improve her parliamentary approach, not just in key voting decisions, but in her contributions at First Minister's questions, where she has been consistently poorer than Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader.
Ms Alexander's first job is to start getting the better of Mr Salmond and proving she can lead an effective opposition in the parliament. But she also has to convince her party to follow her down the road of major constitutional reform, and she has to put the donations row completely behind her, which will not happen until the last of the investigations is wound up.
Only then will she have succeeded in killing off the "relatively little" back-stabbing that is doing so much damage.
There were no tears, no Hillary Clinton sniffles
Commentary: Emma Cowing, at Holyrood
SHE perched quietly, her immaculately coiffed head down, taking bird-like sips of water.
The beleaguered Scottish Labour leader was at First Minister's Questions yesterday morning in full battle dress, her neat brown suit ironed to within an inch of its life, a slash of signature red warpaint across her mouth.
But behind the scenes it has been a different picture for Wendy Alexander as she struggled to deal with the fallout from the donation investigation.
She had been spotted, on the Edinburgh to Glasgow train, scratching furiously at her scalp, juggling phone calls to spin doctors and her children, the stress of a future suspended precariously in the balance etched wearily across her face. Indeed, she admitted as much later that afternoon, telling the press – after the Electoral Commission cleared her of intentional wrongdoing – that it had been a "bruising experience".
But before all that, she had the First Minister to deal with. Alex Salmond, a small balding patch glinting under the hot chamber lights, couldn't resist a mischievous smile in the direction of his finance minister, John Swinney, the architect of Wednesday's passed Budget, before the off. He leaped as soon as was decent, trumpeting, in response to an exchange on school building plans: "I say to Wendy Alexander, as gently as I possibly can, that I don't think she is in a fantastic position to lecture anyone on public or private finance.
"If she had wanted to remove me from office she had a perfect opportunity yesterday. I can only suppose, because of the Labour Party's almost unanimous abstention in the Budget, that you want me to continue in office. In the new mood of consensus, let me say – I want Wendy Alexander to continue in office as well."
The remark provoked widespread laughter in the chamber, while Ms Alexander shook her head dismissively, the only outward sign of nerves a restless leg that swung from her chair. Five rows back, former first minister Jack McConnell looked glad to be out of it.
But perhaps Mr Salmond should be careful what he wishes for. Because a few hours later Ms Alexander was back in the spotlight, a statement clutched in her hand, late for her own press conference and accompanied by two of her closest allies, Jackie Baillie and Cathy Jamieson, who looked on like beatific nodding dogs as Ms Alexander set out her stall.
There were no tears, no Hillary Clinton sniffles; Ms Alexander was instead wreathed in smiles, albeit the sort that, after a while, began to take on a certain rictus quality. She talked of honesty and integrity. Of regret and mistakes. Of hurt and distress caused to friends, family and donors. Of getting back to work.
At times shrill and restless, at others seemingly calm and in control, this was a political leader determined to keep her head above water. The public, she said, actually quite liked it when a politician admitted their own mistakes. What a shame then, that she never quite got round to saying sorry.
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