04 September 2008

Wendygate: the saga almost ends

MSPs have decided not to issue a one-day ban to Wendy Alexander. I said at the time that a one-day ban fell between two stools. If you beleived that either she'd done nothing wrong or that the matter was trivial, you'd have wanted the report thrown out altogether. If you believed that this was serious and that the then Leader of the Opposition needed to be held to account for serious wrong-doing, then a one-day ban would have been the limpest, weakest sanction imaginable. In short, the outcome pleased no one other than the four members of the Committee who voted for the report.

Nor did it help that the Committee's work almost mutated in the eyes of observers. For those not sympthetic to Wendy Alexander, this matter was almost in danger of becoming a proxy for the Electoral Commission's inaction over the 'dodgy donations', all of which were concocted to sidestep legal issues, with the exception of one, which was just plain illegal, and cost Charlie Gordon his place on the Labour frontbench. So the matter of whether or not Wendy Alexander declared her donations to Parliament on time became the last chance to hold her to account. The fact that the discussions centred on a piece of Parliamentary procedure rather than criminal law, and that whatever happened, Wendy Alexander had already escaped prosecution on the one violation of the law of the land no longer mattered. Wendy had to face scrutiny, and that was that.

For those more closely aligned to the former Labour Leader, the very idea that this investigtion was even happening was proof of a vindictive witch-hunt. Her supporters saw all this as the SNP's doing, a plot to smear their Leader's name. That she had in fact broken the law didn't matter. That the complaint came from the politically-neutral Standards Commissioner was irrelevant. Her supporters conveniently ignored the fact that even the Electoral Commission had suggested that she'd broken the law but decided that it wasn't worth further action (how many people with three points on their driving licence were jealous of her that day?). They viewed that decision not to bother as an exoneration that proved she was whiter than white, so anything more must be politically driven. Wendy had to be found innocent, and that was that.

And it's in this context, and in the context of the limp sanction offered by the Committee that everyone appears to have overlooked what happened: Wendy Alexander neglected her responsibility to declare her donations on the Register of Interests. Now, she did ask the Clerks, and they did give her the wrong advice, but it only occurred to her to ask after the deadline had passed for some of the donations. So if they'd been on the ball, they'd have told her that she had already broken the rules.

And with Parliament throwing out the punishment today, Wendy Alexander must have been wondering "What if?". She resigned for the good of the party, to avoid having this hanging over her. But the Party was in the mire anyway: Glasgow East saw to that, and the campaign to replace her managed to trigger a turf war between Labour MSPs and MPs. However, her Parliamentary performance had been called into question, and the chaos that she generated around Labour's constitutional policy was cringeworthy. Perhaps this just made gave her a fitting exit strategy, at a time when she could blame the SNP for a witch-hunt, rather than her own Party (for its support for her evaporating), or herself for performances in the Chamber (remember that as far as the party is concerned, that the Chamber is the only place where she led Labour). No time is the right time to go, but there was at least a Keith Brown-shaped scapegoat in place.

But the worst part is that no one comes out of this smelling of roses. Wendy Alexander did break the law and did break Parliamentary rules - she may have escaped formal sanction for both but that doesn't change the fact that she was in the wrong to begin with. The Holyrood Clerks look like complete and utter dingbats for getting this so badly wrong, and if you look at the ostensible reasons for Wendy's departure rather than the subtext, you'd be forgiven for thinking that they inadvertantly did more than anyone to bring the axe down on Wendy Alexander's political career. The Standards, Procedures & Public Appointments Committee was itself divided over the issue: that was always going to be the case, but the fact that it came to a 4-3 vote meant that it was in a particularly weak position taking the case to the full Parliament; and the verdict was a shabby compromise in any case. Then Parliament managed to hold an ugly debate on the matter and then opted to leave a violation of the rules unpunished. So it's difficult to see who the winner is from this, other than Wendy Alexander's eventual successor, whose term of office will commence without this hanging over them.

So what needs to happen? The rules need to be made clearer and simpler. The Clerks need to know what they are. And it needs to be spelt out once and for all that it is the responsibility of the MSPs themselves for making sure that they are above board and following all the rules. Ignorance of Parliamentary rules, like ignorance of the law, should be no excuse.

It remains to be seen what will become of Wendy Alexander. She can't realistically return to the frontbench. She could always return to a Committee Convenership - if I were a Minister, I'd hate to have to face her on the Audit Committee, for example - but I can't see how she can contribute beyond that now. The only roles she hasn't filled in Parliament are First Minister (which is now out of the question), the Corporate Body (why on Earth would she want to do that?) and Presiding Officer (No. Just no.). She's been a Minister, a backbencher, an Opposition frontbencher and Leader of the Opposition. Perhaps her Parliamentary career has come to a logical conclusion and the boundary changes would make 2011 a fitting time for her to head for the private sector, or to set up a think tank. She'd probably suit either of those: she'd almost certainly put more into and get more out of either those positions than she could by remaining an MSP.

But there has been one surprising casualty of this whole affair: Hugh O'Donnell, the Committee LibDem representative. He has been replaced by Robert Brown, while O'Donnell is now languishing on the Siberia of the Holyrood Committee system: Equal Opportunities. The MSP for Central Scotland will not get another day in the sun for a while, sadly. And given the fact that 70 MSPs voted against sanctions to 49 in favour, it's clear that O'Donnell's support for sanctions did not translate to the rest fo the Group. He seems like a very isolated figure tonight, perhaps even more isolated than Wendy Alexander herself.


boxthejack said...

Didn't four or five Lib Dems vote with Hugh O'Donnell? In which case I think you rather overstate his isolation.

Meanwhile, what did you make of FMQs yesterday? Good performances all round I thought.

Will said...

BTJ, a fair point, as the Whip illustrates. However, Hugh O'Donnell's position as Deputy Education Spokesman in a year when the Legislative Programme contains less on education than on other issues, and while his only Committee duty is on Equal Opps (even Subordinate Legislation might get a bit of time in the sun this year!), I can't help but get the feeling that it's going to be a long while before we hear from him again.

Sadly, I missed FMQs (I was at work... I have to fund my fabulous Hollywood lifestyle somehow, you know!) but the reviews seem to be positive. Though when it comes to FMQs, I suspect that everyone's on tenterhooks for when the new Labour Leader takes office, and faces Alex Salmond.