General Election 2015: Parties vie to turn leaked Nicola Sturgeon memo to their advantage

SNP First Minister dismisses claim she wants a Tory win as 'a dirty trick'

James Cusick
Sunday 05 April 2015 11:25 BST
Nicola Sturgeon at a rally in Glasgow on Saturday
Nicola Sturgeon at a rally in Glasgow on Saturday (PA)

A leaked Government memo which claims the SNP leader wants the Conservatives to win the general election, has been described by Nicola Sturgeon as a “political dirty trick” manufactured in Whitehall.

The memo, purporting to be an account of a February meeting in Edinburgh between Ms Sturgeon and the French ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, threatens to dominate the remaining month of campaigning north of the border.

Scotland’s First Minister (FM) described the contents of the memo, which also included a dismissal of Ed Miliband as not “PM material”, as “categorically, 100 per cent not true”. Last night the head of the UK civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, agreed to an SNP demand and launched an inquiry into the circumstances of the leak.

The document, published in the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph, offered an account by a civil servant who had discussed the Bermann meeting with the French consul general in Edinburgh, Pierre-Alain Coffinier.

The memo, which has been rejected as “categorically, 100 per cent not true” also included a dismissal of Ed Miliband as not “PM material”
The memo, which has been rejected as “categorically, 100 per cent not true” also included a dismissal of Ed Miliband as not “PM material” (Getty)

At the conclusion of fairly routine diplomatic correspondence, Ms Sturgeon is reported to have said she’d rather see “David Cameron remain as PM”, and that she “had no idea what mischief Alex Salmond [the former first minister] would get up to”. A concluding caveat from the civil servant admits to reservations about what Ms Sturgeon was saying, adding: “It might well be a case of something being lost in translation.”

Ms Bermann’s office said the SNP leader had not expressed an opinion to her on who she preferred as prime minister.

Mr Coffinier said the lost-in-translation issue was irrelevant, as his conversations were in English. The consul general said he had discussed the meeting with a Scotland Office official, but had made no casual reference, at any stage, to Ms Sturgeon’s preferences. He did admit, however, that the discussion between the two women had taken in the “political situation” – adding “which is normal”. The prospect of the Heywood inquiry being able to report back even interim findings before the election was described to The Independent on Sunday as “remote and politically awkward” by a Cabinet Office source.

With the FM effectively saying her party had been set up, and demanding to know who concocted the letter, that did not stop the leaders of the main parties taking full advantage. Ed Miliband described the leaked government memo as “damning”. He said the document revealed the SNP held different private opinions to what it was telling the Scottish electorate.

Jim Murphy, who since he became Scottish Labour leader has struggled to dent polling numbers which suggest Labour face a near wipe-out north of the border, said this was a “devastating revelation that exposes the uncomfortable truth behind the SNP’s general election campaign”.

He added: “For months Nicola Sturgeon has been telling Scots she wants rid of David Cameron, yet behind closed doors … she admits she wants a Tory government.”

Ed Balls, Labour’s senior finance spokesman, tweeted that the document had revealed an “unholy alliance” and that if Scotland votes SNP, “Sturgeon gets the government she wants”. Only the Greens backed the SNP, saying the “reputation” of a politically independent civil service was at risk.

The origins of the document were the subject of an intense trawl over the past 24 hours inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Memos of previous diplomatic exchanges, involving both Alex Salmond and his successor, were gathered. However the FCO disowned the document published by the Telegraph.

Nicola Sturgeon is reported to have said she’d rather see “David Cameron remain as PM”
Nicola Sturgeon is reported to have said she’d rather see “David Cameron remain as PM” (Getty)

It is expected that Sir Jeremy’s inquiry will begin in the Scotland Office. The Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, did not dismiss the document as a forgery. He said he learned of its contents only when his staff notified him on Friday.

All four main Scottish parties are facing two televised debates this week. The first, in Edinburgh on Tuesday night, involves Ms Sturgeon, Mr Murphy, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, and the LibDem Scottish leader Willie Rennie. A BBC debate in Aberdeen on Wednesday night involves the same four leaders, plus the Greens and Ukip.

Fresh from her widely praised performance in the UK debate last week, Ms Sturgeon was expected to build on that success. However the letter is likely to influence the dynamics of the televised combat.

Speaking in Glasgow at an anti-Trident rally, she dismissed suggestions that she needed to defend anything, instead saying the “bigger question” was for Westminster to explain “how this memo came to be written and published”.

The FM said the story was an indication of the “panic” in Westminster brought on by the surge in nationalist support in Scotland.

Labour responded with Mr Miliband stating there would not be a coalition or post-election deal with the SNP. A senior Labour source anticipated the outcome of the inquiry, saying: “No one will ever know for certain what went on between Nicola Sturgeon and the French ambassador.”

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