BRITAIN’S most senior civil servant last night launched an inquiry into the leaking of a UK Government memo that claimed Nicola Sturgeon wanted David Cameron to return to power.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service, announced the investigation as Sturgeon spent the day fending off suggestions that she favoured a Conservative government and had claimed that Ed Miliband was not Prime Minister material.
Heywood took the step after the First Minister said she had been the victim of “dirty tricks” by an “out of control” Whitehall system and repeatedly denied she had expressed the views attributed to her in the document drafted by a civil servant.
The Cabinet Secretary acted after Sturgeon demanded a leak inquiry into the “inaccurate” memorandum, which gave an account of a meeting she had with the French Ambassador in February.
Sturgeon said it was “absolutely preposterous” to suggest that she wanted Cameron to remain in Downing Street.
But her opponents seized on the contents of the memo, claiming they were “damning” and showed that her public statements were at odds with her private views.
In the run-up to May’s election, Sturgeon has been winning over traditional Labour voters by saying the SNP will prop up a Labour-led administration on a deal-by-deal basis.
There are those, however, who suspect the SNP leadership would secretly favour a Tory government because it would give momentum to their argument for independence.
But if the SNP’s most senior politician was to actually admit to holding that view, it would be hugely damaging to her credibility, undermining her appeal to Labour voters in Scotland.
Yesterday Sturgeon attended an anti-Trident demonstration in Glasgow after the memorandum was published in the Daily Telegraph.
Issuing a series of denials, she pointed out that the French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann and the French Consul General Pierre-Alain Coffinier, who was also at the February meeting, had denied the claims that she had expressed a preference for Cameron over Miliband.
The memorandum was drawn up by a civil servant on March 6 and gave an account of a telephone conversation with Coffinier. The official asked to be “filled in” by Coffinier on the meetings Bermann had with politicians, including Sturgeon, on her visit to Scotland in February.
The document claimed that Sturgeon had “no idea ‘what kind of mischief’ Alex Salmond would get up to; and confessed that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material).”
The document then records the civil servant noting: “I have to admit that I’m not sure that the FM’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that, so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation.”
Yesterday a spokesman for Bermann told Scotland on Sunday: “They discussed a wide range of issues, mostly around Franco-British co-operation. They touched on the political situation, but Nicola Sturgeon did not touch on her political preferences for the next British Prime Minister – not at all.”
Coffinier, who is based in Edinburgh, said: “As is usual we discussed the political
situation, which is normal. But at no stage did anyone make any comment on their preference for the United Kingdom election.”
He also denied he had told a civil servant that Sturgeon would rather see Cameron in Downing Street than Miliband.
Reacting to the leaked memo, Sturgeon said: “This story has already been shown to be 100 per cent untrue – having been comprehensively rejected by both the French Ambassador and the Consul General.
“The real issue is how a second-hand and inaccurate account of this meeting, which was not even attended by the UK Government, came to be written by a UK civil servant and then leaked to Tory-supporting newspapers at the start of a general election campaign.”
She added: “It suggests a Whitehall system out of control – a place where political dirty tricks are manufactured and leaked.”
When asked in Glasgow if she felt that Miliband was “Prime Ministerial”, Sturgeon replied: “That’s a matter for the people to decide. I have made it very clear I don’t want a Tory government. While I don’t want a coalition with the Labour Party, I would be willing to work with Ed Miliband to keep the Tories out of government. It is Ed Miliband who hasn’t answered the question: would he be prepared to work with me to lock David Cameron out of Downing Street?”
Miliband said the contents of the memo were “damning”. “In private they are saying that they actually do want a Conservative government,” the Labour leader said.
The controversy erupted as Sturgeon’s popularity was enjoying a boost following her performance in last week’s ITV leaders’ debate.
Last night Heywood responded to Sturgeon’s call for an inquiry by releasing a statement confirming that an investigation would be carried out.
“You have asked me to investigate issues relating to the apparent leak of a Scotland Office memo that forms the basis of this morning’s Daily Telegraph story,” Heywood said.
“I can confirm that earlier today I instigated a Cabinet Office-led leak inquiry to establish how extracts from this document may have got into the public domain. Until that inquiry is complete I will not be making any further comment either on the document or the inquiry.”
The memo now looks set to feature at this week’s Scottish leaders’ debates hosted by STV and the BBC. Sturgeon’s relationship with the Labour Party is also likely to crop up in the last debate of the election campaign. On April 16 Sturgeon will be pitched against Miliband in a BBC Opposition Leaders’ debate.
Sturgeon’s relationship with the Conservatives will also come under scrutiny at a time when many believe that a Cameron election victory would lead to growing calls from independence supporters for another referendum.
Yesterday the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson challenged Sturgeon to rule out a second referendum ahead of this week’s debates.
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