On Damian and duplicity

I’ve already published D for the A to Z blogging challenge, but—lucky you—you get a bonus extra post, because I need to vent, and I need to vent about the Sturgeon affair.

Nicola Sturgeon did rather well in the leaders’ debate the other night. Too well, it turns out, because as if by magic the Daily Telegraph get leaked a memo from the Foreign Office which purports to have a record of a conversation between her and the French Ambassador in which (presumably after she had complemented her on the quality of her confectionery) Sturgeon is alleged to have expressed a preference for David Cameron to win the election, in stark contrast to her party’s and her publicly expressed desires to see him out of Downing Street. The memo is now available on the Telegraph‘s website.

The whole thing stinks—other than the lousy journalism whereby the Telegraph found time to get a quote from the leaders of Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats, but not time to ring Ms Sturgeon herself, or anyone from her party, or anyone from the French Embassy—the memo was not only not written by anyone present (the Consul General phoned in an account of the conversation as he is required to do, and an as yet unnamed official drew up a memo based upon this) but whoever wrote the memo suggests that the contentious claim “might have been something lost in translation.” In fact, the French Embassy conduct all their interactions with British politicians in English, and so this memo, if authentic, is so fourth-hand that its author did not even know what language was being used and was utterly ignorant of the protocols concerning language use by foreign ambassadorial staff.

That the Tories are crowing over this is no surprise, but what really stinks is the mileage that Labour are now seeking to make out of it. Of course, Labour stand to lose a huge number of seats to the SNP in May, but they are also likely to need the support of the SNP to have any chance of forming a government should there be no outright majority in the consequent parliament. In their case it’s not just cheap, nasty opportunism; it’s cheap, nasty, short-sighted opportunism.

But the point at which my irritation with almost everyone concerned in this affair spilled over into the need to take to my blog and rant was this article in the Spectator by Damian McBride. McBride sets out the obvious, that (to precis):

  1. either Ms Sturgeon and the Ambassador (i.e. the interlocutors themselves) are fibbing; or
  2. the Consul General (whose report of the conversation is the basis of the memo) is or was mistaken; or
  3. the writer of the memo embellished it.

Sturgeon, a spokesperson for the Ambassador, and the Consul General have all expressly denied that this was mentioned either in the conversation itself, or in the report of it. Which would ordinarily point us towards the writer of the memo; however McBride is clear: “From my experience, this is borderline impossible. The stock in trade of FCO officials is producing memos like this: a verbatim record of conversations they’ve had, with a minor bit of commentary in the margins. This is a classic of its kind. I think we can state with some degree of certainty that what the FCO official wrote down is exactly what the Consul General said to him/her.” He also exonerates the Consul General, leaving the carefully indirectly expressed conclusion that Sturgeon is now lying and the French ambassadorial staff backing her up, for their own tricksy French reasons.

From my experience. Damian McBride is a former civil servant. He was special adviser to Gordon Brown. McBride ceased to be a mainstream civil servant when Gordon Brown appointed him special adviser, precisely because McBride’s colleagues were unhappy with how partisan he was being as a civil servant. McBride then ceased to be a special adviser when it was found that, from his official email address, he had discussed with Labour activists the possibility of starting a smear campaign about the private lives of prominent Tories using rumours that they knew to be false.

From my experience. Damian McBride’s experience is not exactly the best exemplar of the non-partisan civil servant. It is not one that, with the best will in the world, could be remotely described as circling round the widest possible interpretation of the word “honest.” It is one of a civil servant exhibiting partisanship, duplicity, deceit, a willingness to participate in outright slander, and… well… everything he so strenuously denies is possible within the FCO. The old spindog tricks do not seem to have left him, either, for the article very carefully avoids directly saying that Sturgeon is lying whilst attempting to leave the reader with the opinion that this is the only plausible explanation.

The whole affair, as I said, stinks. But the staggering duplicity and hypocrisy of McBride’s intervention is the rankest moment of all. So far.

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