New scandal hits Westminster: Memogate!

Does she prefer him to Miliband? It would help her cause to have a government to fight against, but there are too many unknowns about the Telegraph's story for anybody to be certain - yet.

Does she prefer him to Miliband? It would help her cause to have a government to fight against, but there are too many unknowns about the Telegraph’s story for anybody to be certain – yet.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been quietly telling other people that while she outwardly says Ed Miliband should be the next Prime Minister, she secretly supports David Cameron – or has she?

The details are in a memo allegedly “seen” by reporters for the Daily Torygraph. The story broke the day after Ms Sturgeon struck a chord with the British public in the televised leader debate with support for many of Mr Miliband’s policies, and on the same day that it was claimed the Conservative Party was putting together a deal with the UK Independence Party (UKIP).


SNP cultists (the rabid members of that party’s following who refuse to see any wrong in what its leaders do) instantly leapt on the story, demanding that it was not true, that its writers should resign and its publishers apologise, and all the usual things they say.

The basic details of the story are that Ms Sturgeon told the French Ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, in February that she would “rather see” David Cameron win the general election because Ed Miliband is not “prime minister material. The comment forms part of a leaked memorandum written by “a senior British civil servant” and dated March 6.

The story states: “It is a common diplomatic courtesy if an ambassador to the UK visits one of the three devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland for the British Government to be given an official readout of the conversation although the SNP leader, who has only been in position since the autumn, may have been unaware of this formality… The disclosure of her private comments may undermine Miss Sturgeon’s new-found popularity.”

Spokespeople for Ms Sturgeon and the French Embassy have stated forcibly that the story is not true. The Foreign Office has denied the existence of such a memo and the Scotland Office… well, the Scotland Office says it doesn’t give out information about them. Hmm.

In response to repeated calls to show proof that the memo exists, the Torygraph published what it described as the “full text of Nicola Sturgeon memo” – but failed to show photographic evidence that would indicate that it was an official government document (not that the SNP cultists would have accepted this – they have already said they would not).

As a reporter, the situation disturbs This Writer. The libel laws of this country are extremely robust and it would be the height of foolishness for any newspaper to risk prosecution under those laws, just to drive the ‘Crosby wedge’ between two political parties (Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby campaigns on a ‘divide and conquer’ basis, meaning that he will seek to end alliances by any means).

Journalists are warned to make sure every detail of a potentially contentious story is supported by hard evidence – and also to get ‘balancing’ comments from the people named in the story if possible. If not, they should have the right of reply. The Torygraph story did not contain any such remarks from Ms Sturgeon when it came out, but does carry the claim that it is untrue at the time of writing.

Scottish Labour leapt on the story as evidence that Ms Sturgeon is not to be trusted; the argument is that, obviously, if you want independence, it is easier for your cause to have a government you can actively fight – witness this tweet from ScotLab: “Devastating: reporting Nicola Sturgeon secretly backs Cameron

And this one, from Frances Hinde: “Sturgeon has calculated that a Tory gov. is best for her aim of breaking up UK- course she wants a Tory government.”

Scottish Labour followed up the tweet with this image:


Mark Ferguson of LabourList took a more balanced view: “For many of the SNP’s online hardcore base, this Sturgeon story will be viewed as conspiracy. Pause for thought for undecided voters though.”

The Guardian’s Scotland correspondent Severin Carrell tweeted: “French consul general tells no such views given by ‘absolutely no preference was expressed’ on outcome.” But then, the French consul general would say that, in order to prevent ill-feeling against France itself.

Simon Johnson, the story’s co-author, responded: “The man said what he said in private to the UK Government. It’s in black and white,” and then stopped tweeting for the evening – which some may also have viewed with suspicion.

Richard Murphy, of Tax Research UK fame, tweeted: “Try as I might I just can’t imagine Nicola Sturgeon discussing possible election outcomes the way that is being suggested.” He continued: “The Sturgeon / French story is a non-eye witness London civil servant version of events that all participants say did not occur. Odd that.”

Perhaps we would be best-served by asking what this achieves. Mhairi Grealis tweeted: “The question here is who stands 2 benefit from trashing Sturgeon. No SNP voter will buy this so..?”

Is this true? Certainly no SNP cultist would, but they are only a certain percentage of the Scottish population. Many are planning to vote SNP because they have been persuaded to; this could persuade them back…

… but only back to Labour. What does the Conservative Party have to gain from this?

You see, the bottom-line assumption has to be that the aim of the story is to benefit the Conservatives. The paper responsible for all this isn’t called the Torygraph for nothing!

The SNP’s Angus McNeil tweeted the following image:


The trouble with this cartoon is that it claims an innate racism in the Labour Party that isn’t there. “That’s the Scots telt!!” says the Labour apparatchik, as though Labour thinks all the Scottish people need somehow to be put in their place. It’s a gross assumption from the SNP cultists, and one that does them no services at all.

“The Telegraph provided Labour with a gun – they duly obliged,” he tweeted. But this claim that Labour shot itself in the foot by seizing on the story only works if the majority of people who were persuaded to vote SNP aren’t persuaded against the SNP again by this story. And that is by no means certain.

Certainly, as a maxim, it is true that Labour would be ill-advised to put too much credence in a Tory-supporting newspaper’s story, without a lot more evidence; there remain too many uncertainties about this story to predict the likely outcome.

Perhaps Eoin Clarke is right: “Labour & SNP have both ruled out a Coalition. UKIP & the Tory Party have not. Torygraph smear is to divert attention.

Maybe. But at the time of writing the story is still the Torygraph‘s lead, and we have a possible source for it in the Scotland Office.

The rabid SNP supporters will do their cause no favours by denying it outright and pointing the finger at Labour; Scottish Labour will do its cause no good by blindly supporting it and pointing the finger at the SNP.

Perhaps we should all look to the Torygraph and its reporter Simon Johnson – and pile on the pressure for hard facts.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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20 thoughts on “New scandal hits Westminster: Memogate!

  1. Samuel Miller (@Hephaestus7)

    Not only spokespeople for Ms Sturgeon and the French Embassy have stated forcibly that the story is not true. Nicola Sturgeon herself tweeted 18 hours ago: “[email protected]_telegraph your story is categorically, 100%, untrue…which I’d have told you if you’d asked me at any point today.” And, 15 hours ago, she tweeted: “[email protected] don’t you think you should update this story with the statements from both myself and the French Ambassador that it’s untrue?”

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      In fairness, the Telegraph did exactly that.
      However, statements from the people involved that the claims are not true won’t mean much against the apparent admission that this memo does exist, and that it appears to have been leaked from the Scotland Office.

  2. Jim Round

    I’m no fan of the Moon on a stick party but newspapers don’t have a track record for truthfulness (think Hillsborough, Malcom Jeffries etc) this does sound like the Torygraph shilling for the, erm, Tories.
    Not surprising giving Cameron’s poor showings on the TV recently.

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      This is why my article struck a cautious tone. There’s something worth investigating here; but it might not be what the Torygraph is telling us.

      1. Jim Round

        Yes, definately worth investigating, might be a good idea to start with the Scotland Office, and I meant Chris Jefferies, not Malcolm, d’oh. 🙁

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      Yes- I was calling for that last night, and all I got was ‘here’s the text of the memo’. I didn’t want that; I wanted to see the memo and know it exists!
      At least now an investigation has been launched into how it was leaked, we know that it does, indeed, exist.

  3. john ingamells (@geovanni218)

    Do not be taken in by any of this campaign of dishonesty by media groups who have too much influence in the first place. Nicola Sturgeon had a very successful debate and a set of dirty tricks begins. Don’t accept it our votes are ours and not the possession of dishonest media proprietors

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      It’s certainly questionable, isn’t it?
      But that doesn’t mean we should rule it out, as the many voices of the SNP have been claiming.
      Nicola Sturgeon has denied it, but she would, wouldn’t she? The French Ambassador has denied it, but she would, wouldn’t she? The French consul-general, also.
      Would their claims stand up in court if a copy of the memo was produced and the civil servants involved in its creation stood up on oath and said it was accurate? No.

      1. Joan Edington

        I think, after all your recent posts, I can sense how much you want this to be true.

  4. jaypot2012

    It’s a load of BS that has been made up by the tories themselves and then printed in the tory newspaper. Ms Sturgeon would never, ever give the tories any kind of help, story, anything at all to do with them at all.
    I know that policitians lie and deceive but I can say hand on heart, that I believe Ms Sturgeon has NOT said such a thing and that this whole thing is a load of drivel. When they show the evidence (which they do not have ‘cos it doesn’t exist), only then will I believe it.
    As for reporters having to be careful and watch out for libel etc. Do me a favour, for printing lies and destroying people’s lives, they are the top of the list for doing so. I wouldn’t trust any reporter, EVER!

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      We know now, that an investigation has been launched into how the memo was leaked.
      Jeremy Heywood wrote in a letter to Ms Sturgeon, “I instigated a Cabinet Office-led leak inquiry to establish how extracts from this document may have got into the public domain.” Not into the existence of the memo, but into how extracts became public knowledge. So we know this memo exists.
      Your belief in Ms Sturgeon is touching but she has a lot to lose if the memo is accurate, which means that, at best, her comment should be set to one side for now. We simply don’t know if it’s true or not. Likewise those of the Ambassador and Consul-General.
      As a news reporter for more than 20 years, with an unimpeachable record, I’d like to thank you for the vote of confidence at the end. We’re not all like that, you know!

  5. Joan Edington

    If the memo came from the Scotland Office it could be from any party. It is Scottish in name but is totally anti-independence. I wouldn’t even put it past the Secretary of State himself who is more anti-SNP than most. I’m fed up of being called rabid by the way.

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      If it came from the Scotland Office it was generated by the Civil Service.
      The leak is likely to have been made by a Tory, of course.
      Who said you were rabid? Have you been acting in a particularly unreasonable way?

  6. HomerJS

    I think your desire for caution is the best approach. Very tempting to see what you want to see. Must however disagree with a couple of your arguments. The advantage for the Tories is quite clear, and has nothing to do with Scottish votes. Smearing the SNP helps in their condemnation of a possible Labour/SNP pact. Labour jumping in to criticise will make them look foolish if this does not pan out. The memo itself won’t mean anything unless it has been ratified by all parties. Libel? Well actually the papers just have to issue an apology, especially if they feel they can show they acted in good faith. Just before an election is not a good time to launch a law suit, and after . .well, it’s a bit too late then. Either you have your seats and it doesn’t matter, or you haven’t and it just looks like sour grapes.

  7. Timro

    It’s hogwash. The Telegraph didn’t even contact Sturgeon before the article was printed to allow her to confirm or deny it, which, unless I am mistaken, is pretty shoddy journalism.

    1. Mike Sivier Post author

      It’s not wonderful, but there could have been good reasons for it. Ms Sturgeon would have a strong reason to wish such a story silenced, and may have tried to take out an injunction to do so, if informed of the intention to publish. That would be against the public interest – which is the only reason for publishing the story (it is in the public interest to know if a senior politician is saying one thing in public and the opposite in private). She had the right of reply, and took it.

      Of course, none of the above proves that the story is factually accurate. We now know that there was a memo and that it was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, but there remain questions to be answered about it.

      The fact that all those mentioned in the memo have denied its contents is neither here nor there at the moment. They all have strong reasons for doing so, that have nothing to do with the truth of the matter.

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