Sunday 5 April 2015

Make Her Deny It: The French Ambassador Memo

The Daily Telegraph has published a leaked civil service memo; it recounts a conversation between SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and the French ambassador to the UK, in which which Sturgeon allegedly said she would prefer David Cameron to Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. When you sum it up like this, it sounds like something from primary school: Simon says that Sylvie says Nicola fancies David and thinks Ed is a dweeb, but Nicola says that's rubbish.

Nicola Sturgeon at an anti-Trident rally in Glasgow. Source: Guardian
It also reminds me of an apocryphal story about US President Lyndon B Johnson.

The story, as related by Hunter S Thompson, goes something like this: In one of his early political campaigns, Johnson was far behind in a primary race for a Senate seat. His opponent was a successful and popular pig rancher.

Johnson told his staff to start a rumour that his opponent was having "routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard animals."

But that isn't true, said the shocked campaign manager.

"Of course it's not," barked Johnson. "But let's make the bastard deny it." Legend has it Johnson went on to win his campaign.

It is most implausible Sturgeon would have let slip her private opinions, in conversation with an official of a foreign government. She is far too experienced and canny a politician for that. However, the report puts her in an uncomfortable position, as she has to expend time and energy denying the claims of the memo. Exactly who wrote the memo and how it came to be leaked to the Telegraph are interesting questions; the upcoming civil service inquiry may shed some light.

Whether the contents of the memo are true or not, why might the Telegraph have published it?

In the first instance, the reason is obvious: To generate pageviews and sell newspapers. It's undoubtedly achieved that much, but the underlying motives are a little more murky. The Telegraph is conservative in its ideology -- but not necessarily a tame attack dog for the Tory party, as it showed a few weeks ago by taking down Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

From a simplistic point of view, Conservatives might want the SNP to do as well as possible. The more seats SNP takes from Labour in Scotland, the less chance Labour will be the largest party after the election, and the better the Conservative claim to form the next government. By this reasoning, to the extent that it hurts Sturgeon and the SNP, the Telegraph story is bad news for the Tories.

Then again, Scotland is virtually a lost cause for the Conservatives. To get a parliamentary majority of their own, they need to win seats in England and Wales, against the Liberal Democrats and Labour. For the Tories, the battle for Scotland is a sideshow, and Ed Miliband is the real enemy.

From this point of view, the story makes a little more sense. It feeds into the overall Tory narrative that Miliband is weak and unreliable. It also stirs up some additional hostility between SNP and Labour. They despise each other anyway, and the report will make it that much more difficult for them to cooperate after the election. If their relationship is sufficiently poisonous, they may be unable to do a deal to keep the Conservatives out of Downing Street; or a minority Labour government might collapse in short order.

As Flying Rodent observes, the memo is particularly damaging to the SNP because it contains a grain of truth. There is an element of the SNP which would prefer a Tory government, one as mean, vicious and hostile towards Scotland as possible. The worse Westminster becomes, the more independence appears like a practical solution.

Conversely, an SNP gradualist might prefer to see a reasonably well-functioning government in London. Independent or not, it is not in Scotland's interest for England to become a dystopia at the hands of Tories and UKIP. In the medium term, some elements of the SNP might be satisfied with devo-max, and a more or less amicable relationship with a Westminster parliament solely responsible for defence and foreign affairs.

I don't know which side of this division Sturgeon might privately endorse. The memo story doesn't stick, because it's so unlikely she would reveal that information to anyone.

Sturgeon is a pragmatist who will try and get the best deal for Scotland and the SNP, as she sees it. Doing a deal with the Tories is an impossibility, so if the SNP ends up holding the balance of power, it will have to reach some sort of accommodation with Labour. Sturgeon's personal opinion of Miliband is of minor importance. The memo is an interesting bit of mischief, but it will have little effect on the wider picture.

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