THE FOUR petitioners who unsuccessfully challenged Alistair Carmichael’s election as Northern Isles MP say the case was lost on “the slimmest of legal technicalities” and the judges’ “damning comments” on his conduct represent “more of a loss… than a win” for the Liberal Democrat.
On Wednesday the Election Court cleared Carmichael of acting illegally by lying about his involvement in leaking a controversial memo about First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, saying it had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt that he had breached electoral law.
Carmichael responded by saying he was “pleased” with the outcome and felt the case had been “politically motivated” by nationalists. He is still facing an investigation into his conduct by the parliamentary standards commissioner.
The four Orcadian petitioners, who have raised over £160,000 towards the £200,000-plus legal costs for the case, responded by saying they had won on two out of the three legal arguments.
“We are disappointed but see the win as caveated by damning comments on Mr Carmichael’s behaviour by the judges,” they said following the judgement.
“The case has been lost on the slimmest of legal technicalities. It is more of a loss for Alistair Carmichael than a win. To appreciate the true tenor of the judgement the full transcript should be read.”
In particular, they refer to the judges’ view that Carmichael’s response to a Cabinet Office-led inquiry into the memo leak was “unimpressive” and his evidence “demonstrated a lack of candour and co-operation on his part”.
Carmichael’s special advisor Euan Roddin leaked the memo, which suggested Sturgeon had indicated to the French ambassador that she would prefer David Cameron to remain as Prime Minister, to the Daily Telegraph on 3 April. Both Sturgeon and the ambassador flatly denied that she had made such a statement.
The judges suggested that by adopting such an approach he “thought that it might have been possible to avoid the whole truth” at least until after the 7 May election.
It was only in a face-to-face interview on 12 May, once telephone records demonstrated Roddin had carried out the leak, that Carmichael admitted his involvement in the leak.
Lady Paton and Lord Matthews concluded: “However the first respondent’s unimpressive response to the inquiry, although showing him in a bad light, and resulting in his constituents being initially misled and then justifiably shocked and dismayed on discovering that they had been so misled, cannot alter our conclusion that section 106 does not, on a proper application of the law to the facts proved, apply in this case”.
Carmichael responded by saying he was pleased with the decision and though he was “always confident of winning the last few months have been a difficult and stressful time for me and my family”.
He expressed gratitude for the “tremendous levels of support received from local people, in both Orkney and Shetland, regardless of which political party they normally support. This support has sustained us and we are very thankful for it.”
The MP, who has held the seat since 2001, thanked his legal team “especially Rosie Walker and her colleagues at Gilson Gray who have been professional and caring throughout”.
“This case was politically motivated,” Carmichael continued. “It was a deliberate attempt by nationalists to remove the last Scottish Liberal voice at Westminster, and is a mark of the unhealthy polarisation of Scottish politics since the referendum.
“I shall continue to represent Orkney and Shetland as a Member of Parliament to the best of my ability, as I have done for the past 14 years.
“These are very special communities, and it is where my wife and I have made our home and where we are bringing up our family. The interests of the Northern Isles have always been, and always will be my first priority. It remains an honour and a privilege to be their member of parliament.”
SNP candidate Danus Skene said he was disappointed because “justice has not been done” – but stressed the petition had “nothing whatever to do with the SNP or any other party or organisation”.
“The court has said plainly that Alistair Carmichael lied ‘for the purpose of affecting (positively) his own return at the election,” Skene said. “Such a person is not fit to be our MP, and should have resigned.
“That the facts established in the case have not led to an annulment of the election is not a failing of the court, or of the petitioners. It is because the obscure letter of the law does not allow a verdict to be drawn from damning evidence.
“I salute the four true citizens who raised the petition challenging the election. It is worth emphasising that the election petition was a personal initiative by four people of varied political opinions who shared a concern that little can be more important in a democracy than that elections are conducted with integrity.”
Meanwhile the Scottish Labour candidate who contested the election has broken his silence on the Carmichael case, saying that while he appreciated why the four petitioners challenged the result, he believes they have been “used by SNP activists to promote their political agenda, and thus this Election Court hearing has been politically motivated”.
“The place for politics is the ballot box – not the courts,” Gerry McGarvey, who will stand for Holyrood in Orkney next year, said. “I never personally believed that the charges being levelled at Mr Carmichael impacted significantly upon the election result.”
Carmichael won the seat on a much-reduced majority of 817 votes over the SNP’s Danus Skene.
McGarvey said it was arguably the 1,624 votes (7.1 per cent) Labour won which prevented a 57th SNP MP from “wandering to Westminster, and not any deception on the part of Mr Carmichael”.
“Great play has been made by pundits and commentators about Mr Carmichael’s integrity having misled the public, and whilst not condoning that, I believe that is as nothing in comparison to the truths and half-truths that have been the hallmark of the SNP Government’s period in office, exemplified even today with the minister for transport, Derek Mackay, changing his position regarding the history surrounding repairs in the Forth Road Bridge repairs debacle.”
But Highlands and Islands list MSP John Finnie, who is now the Scottish Green Party’s justice spokesman, called on Carmichael to reconsider his position after the “hairsplit” court decision because the lies he told had “shattered the trust of the electorate”.
“A lie is a lie,” Finnie said. “Whatever the result of this case was going to be, Mr Carmichael’s integrity was shot to pieces when he admitted after the election that he had lied, not only to his constituents, but to the whole country.
“I believe Mr Carmichael should seriously consider his position following this hairsplit decision by the court. Perhaps he wants to consider resigning and go into a by-election to allow him to face his constituents with the full facts and the opportunity to regain their support.”
UK Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said Carmichael had continued to be an “incredibly strong” voice for Shetland and Orkney despite the “distraction” of the case.Shetland MSP Tavish Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur said: “We are pleased that Alistair can now devote all his energies to working for the people of Orkney & Shetland and that he, Kate and the boys can enjoy Christmas with this weight off their minds.”
Scottish leader Willie Rennie said the judicial system had vindicated Carmichael’s election.
“In the face of this politically motivated and often ugly legal campaign it has been a difficult time for Alistair, his family and his friends. But it is now over.”