McLeish unleashed again

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AND so, Henry Baird McLeish returns once more to cast his baleful shadow over Scottish politics.

At the very best, the Labour party has delivered a verdict of not proven upon McLeish. At worst, his colleagues have abandoned him to his fate.

McLeish’s plaintive complaint that he was an outsider - neither Catholic nor Protestant, and not a member of the "Lanarkshire mafia" - maintains the tone of injured innocence that characterised his behaviour in the immediate aftermath of his resignation when he appeared to blame the media for his troubles and refused to admit that he was in any way culpable for the chain of events that led to his downfall. In his own memorably unfortunate words, this was all just "a muddle, not a fiddle".

McLeish appears to believe that, since he himself enjoyed no personal financial gain from the affair, he did nothing wrong. But his dissembling response to the affair and his refusal to admit that he had broken the House of Commons’ rules ensured that what should have been a minor, if embarrassing, scandal now has the potential to end his career in politics.

Certainly McLeish never enjoyed the confidence of his own colleagues and a majority of the parliamentary Labour party voted for Jack McConnell to succeed Donald Dewar. But McLeish enjoyed the support and endorsement of the most powerful figure in Scottish politics. He became First Minister not on the back of a record of outstanding achievement, but simply because he had the backing of his fellow Fifer Gordon Brown. In that respect, McLeish was the consummate ‘insider’. Nonetheless, there is some truth in McLeish’s belief that he is now the victim of an officially sanctioned and carefully plotted smear campaign designed to portray Officegate as Henry’s problem, not Labour’s. Yet the network of patronage, jobs for the boys (and girls) and a political culture founded upon favours and nod-and-a-wink politics are not confined to the murky dealing of Fife Council. It is endemic across much of municipal Scotland.

Local government incompetence is not - as the overspend at Scottish Borders Council proves - confined to Labour-controlled authorities, but it finds its most corrupting and corrosive presence in those areas in which Labour has virtually become a one-party state. In that sense, Fife is simply the latest in a long line of councils (Glasgow, Monklands, North Lanarkshire) to be exposed as an example of local government ‘worst practice’. The goings-on in Fife have, at the very least, included deliberately withholding information from investigating officials and shredding vital documents. No wonder then that the council’s chief executive, Douglas Sinclair, found that council employees, one of whom was McLeish’s wife Julie, had taken "inappropriate action" in regard to their dealings with the Third Age charity. Since one of those actions was to pay the group 40,000 of public money after it had effectively been wound up, one can only wonder at the temperate nature of Mr Sinclair’s language.

McLeish will fight on, clinging to the wreckage of his career, unless he is handed the black spot by a Chancellor of the Exchequer determined to ensure that the Officegate tide is turned back before it can reach his door. His colleagues’ patience, however, is wearing thin and he will be acutely aware that the Labour party’s keen sense of self-preservation has in the past seen it abandon other figures for lesser offences with ruthless efficiency.

If, however, the Officegate fiasco proves to be the overdue catalyst for local government reform, then ironically that would - regardless of whether or not he is reselected - be McLeish’s unwitting but positive legacy. In that respect at least, he will have done the state some service.