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:
@Telegraph reporting Nicola Sturgeon secretly backs Cameron #voteSNPgetTories”
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
@GdnScotland no such views given by @NicolaSturgeon ‘absolutely no preference was expressed’ on #GE2015 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 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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