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‘I thought I could have truthfully said I didn’t leak it’

Alistair Carmichael leaving the Court of Session buildings on Monday evening. He will continue giving evidence on Tuesday. Photo: Michael MacLeod

ALISTAIR Carmichael has admitted he was “less than fully truthful” to a Cabinet Office inquiry into a leaked memo.

The Northern Isles MP gave evidence at a specially convened Election Court in Edinburgh, brought by four of his constituents claiming he misled voters ahead of May’s election by lying about the leaked document.

In the first of four days of evidence, the Liberal Democrat MP claimed he thought it was “politically beneficial” and “in the public interest” to authorise the publication of a civil service memo stating that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wanted David Cameron to remain as Prime Minister.

Sturgeon said the claim was inaccurate, and in Monday’s hearing Carmichael agreed her comments may have been “lost in translation” while she was speaking to a French ambassador.

Carmichael initially denied leaking the memo, in an interview broadcast on Channel 4 News. But he later admitted he had in fact authorised Euan Roddin, his special advisor at the time, to pass it to a Daily Telegraph journalist.

Acting on behalf of the four Orkney petitioners, Jonathan Mitchell QC spent over two hours questioning Carmichael.

He said he was “quite surprised that a leak of this importance was treated so casually,” and asked whether the memo’s contents “would have been politically beneficial to make public.” Carmichael agreed.

Carmichael told how he first heard about the memo from Roddin while sitting next to him on a flight from Copenhagen to the Faroe Islands in March this year. Asked whether he had authorised the leak to the Daily Telegraph, he said: “Yes, specifically to (journalist) Simon Johnson.”

He also said that between being told about the document and its publication in the media on 3 April this year, he had no other dealings with the memo.

The court heard that 28 people were asked to fill out questionnaires has part of a Cabinet Office inquiry into the episode, including Carmichael.

Mitchell QC said: “Let’s put it bluntly, Mr Carmichael, you intended to lie to the inquiry.”

Carmichael replied: “The inquiry has to find evidence. It was my intention that I would wait to see what I was asked.”

Mitchell QC said: “It was your failure to tell the whole truth that led to it to have to take so long. If you and Mr Roddin had said early on, there wouldn’t have been any need.”

Carmichael said: “Indeed, had we confessed. But there was an inquiry underway and it was for them to find the evidence.”

The MP denied that he was only concerned with protecting his own reputation, adding: “I was concerned at this point about the reputation of my former special advisor. He was under enormous pressure from the press and social media.” He said he suggested Roddin should get his own legal representation.

The petitioners’ QC Mitchell responded: “But by getting him into this mess and hanging him out to dry, he loses his job and his severance pay.”

Carmichael insisted that: “At no point did Euan Roddin do anything he didn’t want to do. He felt very strongly that this was a matter of public interest. We had just come out of the independence referendum.”

Mitchell QC replied: “It just seems extraordinary that you would fire off this missile into the unknown in a manner that you have described as being of benefit to your party.”

He put it to Carmichael that he was “just acting as a loose canon.”

Carmichael responded: “I was deputy leader. The more people who knew then the more likely it is that the element of secrecy will be lost.

“The more people who knew, the more unlikely it is going to be confidential. Otherwise, and I guess today is proof of that, you end up speaking about the leaking of it rather than the contents of it.”

Carmichael was asked whether he could remember any of the questions from the Cabinet Office inquiry questionnaire. He claimed it asked whether he received the memo, to which he answered ‘no,’ adding: “I did nothing with the memo.” 

The petitioners’ QC Mitchell replied: “That’s like saying if you launch a nuclear war on China you’ve done nothing. Can you honestly answer this by saying you did not do anything?”

Carmichael stated: “I didn’t receive the memo so I didn’t do anything to it. I thought I could have truthfully said I didn’t leak it.”

Mitchell QC told Carmichael: “You are obviously not coming up with the truth of the matter,” to which the politician replied: “I was not giving the full truth. I was less than fully truthful.”

Earlier in the day the court heard evidence from Tavish Scott MSP and Fiona Graham, one of the four Orkney petitioners in the hearing.

Scott said: “I think that Alistair has apologised and he deserves a chance to serve the people of Orkney and Shetland. I think people think that this is a political show trial funded by the nationalists who don’t like opposition.”

Graham spoke of her “shock” on hearing that Carmichael had admitted he sanctioned the release of the memo.

She said: “I respected him despite our political differences. He worked hard and everyone in Shetland and Orkney had a strong opinion of him. I felt you could trust him completely.”

Carmichael’s evidence will continue on Tuesday morning. John Curtice of the British Polling Council is also expected to give evidence on Tuesday.

Words by Michael MacLeod