I'll start by going through what we all know:
We know that Steven Purcell has resigned as Leader of Glasgow City Council. We know that despite early indications to the contrary, he has now taken the step of resigning as a Councillor altogether.
We know that Purcell has left the country, though we do not know where. The tabloids can't decide if he's on the other side of the North Channel (in Donegal), the other side of the Atlantic (Florida) or the other side of the world (Australia).
We know that Purcell attended a rehabilitation clinic. We know that he briefly went missing from there last weekend. We know that he was being treated for 'chemical addiction' and we now know that he has taken cocaine. Further, we know all this despite the initial statement citing 'stress and exhaustion' as the reasons for his departure.
We know that Council Deputy Leader Jim Coleman is in charge temporarily. We now know that Coleman refused to put his name to the statement drafted by Purcell's lawyers and PR firm as the Council (or at least, the Labour group) had drafted a different statement referring to the addiction.
We know that the police, specifically the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, turned up at the City Chambers to discuss the risk of blackmail to him, and that following that discussion, Purcell upped sticks to the West End.
We also know that Labour were made aware of the situation in the run-up to the Glasgow East By-Election, but chose to do nothing, save prevent him from being the candidate.
And that's where we are. When it was stress, everyone was wishing him well, singing his praises and hoping for a speedy recovery. Now, it's like they're all talking about someone different. Was this not the same guy who helped to bring the 2014 Commonwealth Games to Glasgow? Apparently not, that was a team effort. Was this not the same guy who was tipped to be a future Labour Leader and First Minister? Apparently not, because we say this about every Leader of Glasgow City Council. Granted, the precedents are Frank McAveety (who got into trouble for choosing eating a pie over Parliamentary duties) and Charlie Gordon (whose approach to fundraising ended up causing the downfall of Wendy Alexander), so if we were shooting for the moon beforehand, we didn't even manage to hit a star on those occasions.
But Purcell was different: he did secure the Games and he did have something about him. While a number of the decisions taken on his watch were unpopular (the school closures spring most readily to mind), he was capable and was highly adept at banging the drum for Glasgow in the way that we expect Alex Salmond to bang the drum for Scotland.
Plus which, I have to confess to a respect for Purcell which I'd imagine not many of you will be surprised by: while there are a good number of 'out' politicians these days, there are very few who would make decent role models - who wants to emulate Peter Mandelson, for heaven's sake? Purcell, on the other hand, managed to navigate the rapids of Glasgow Labour, get to the top there, and seemed more than ready to go to the next level. Even though he attained the Leadership before he came out, he sought and won re-election as himself, and the actual announcement seemed to come and go without any big thing. So of course seeing someone like Purcell getting there and staying there is a boost, a cause for optimism and a reason to be ambitious. After all, if he can get there, why not anyone else? Speaking from my own perspective, there are a couple of practical barriers (being 100 miles away from the border is the primary obstacle) to my wanting to put myself forward for something in the short to medium term, but thanks to people like Purcell, sexual orientation isn't one of them.
So what happened?
Well, at the risk of understatement, it looks like Purcell made some bad choices. Most of us do, but then, most of us don't lead Scotland's largest local authority. So when they caught up with him, as happens to everyone, then they were absolutely going to hit him harder and heavier than usual. And let's face it, a sequence of events which, if some reports are accurate, leads to you leaving the Northern Hemisphere altogether is pretty earth-shattering.
And of course, it seems that Labour were sitting on a timebomb for eighteen months. There was never going to be a good time for this one to go off, but having had that long to draw something up, they've contrived to destroy Purcell when they were seeking to protect him. We've gone from "Leave the man alone!" to "What the hell has happened here?" in one move and it's exasperating, but it's not hard to see why. In fact, the two aren't mutually exclusive: there is nothing that can be achieved by hounding Purcell except prolonging the agony that he's surely in. Rather, the questions are to be asked of his colleagues and basically boil down to, "Who knew what? When did they find it out? What did they do about it?" The answer to the last one is, apparently, naff all. Bravo.
And it was the silence that did it in the end: when the story did finally break, the instinct to circle the wagons took over, but it was done to such extremes that rather than leading everyone to believe that Purcell just needed time, it led everyone to reckon that there was more going on than we were being told. And so it proved. It's like trying to move up (or, indeed, down) a flight of stairs quietly: the steps seem to be creakier and you end up making more noise tiptoeing than if you'd just blundered up normally.
The result? A few days ago, everyone was talking about there being nothing more than a temporary vacancy in the City Chambers, now Purcell is out of politics altogether and probably for good. The Lazarus act required for anything else to happen would have to go beyond even Mandelsonian proportions.
And of course, Glasgow Labour is starting to turn in on itself, with people jockeying for position and various figures looking to hang Purcell out to dry. This suggests that the outlook for the Labour Group could have been ugly whether the former Leader's trajectory was the upward vector we were expecting or the downward vector we got: there doesn't seem to be an obvious successor and given Jim Coleman's caretaker status, Scotland's largest local authority is left basically rudderless for three months, plenty of time for a lot of in-fighting and back-stabbing. Moreover, this happens in the run-up to what has, of late, been a rare beast: a Westminster General Election where Glasgow has the potential to surprise. Can John Mason succeed where Robert McIntyre, Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Jim Sillars all failed and consolidate a By-Election win against Labour? Can Osama Saeed beat the Labour machine and the hostile press coverage to win Glasgow Central? Can either the SNP or the LibDems get that breakthrough against Labour in Glasgow North? You have to go all the way back to 1992 to find even one reason to be at the count in Glasgow, but this time, we have at least three, and now we're going there against the backdrop of a Council likely to eat itself.
And of course, a potential Scottish Labour leader is now out of the picture, which has broader ramifications at Holyrood: either they have to hope that Jim Murphy loses East Renfrewshire but manages to sweep into the Scottish Parliament next year like an avenging angel, or they have to find the personality that Iain Gray left down the back of a couch somewhere. The former isn't ideal as a) he actually has to lose his seat, which isn't set in stone; b) he would then come in as a loser rather than as a winner, and c) the last person to switch like this was Alex Salmond, and he got the Party Leadership first having announced he was seeking not just to be SNP Leader but also First Minister, then getting step 1 achieved, had more than two years to find and win a seat at Holyrood. Jim Murphy, on the other hand, would have to get elected to Holyrood before even being eligible to stand in a contest to be Labour Leader, which means finding and winning a seat (not easy when the equivalent seat to his own is, notionally, already in the hands of the party he would have lost to by then and the other seats are likely to have sitting Labour tenants), then there has to be a vacancy for the group leadership, which requires Labour to lose the 2011 Election, and only then can he stand, and before he can utter the words 'First' and 'Minister', would have to endure a lengthy period as Leader of the Opposition. So unless Labour manage to pull something out of the bag this Spring, then in three months time, Iain Gray will basically be the uncontested Leader of Scottish Labour. And I really don't think that's good for them.
One last thing: am I just being insecure/paranoid about some of the press reporting? My hackles were raised when the Scotsman used the word 'lifestyle' in one of its pieces - the L word is one of those god-awful euphemisms and seems like a decent corroboration of the "nudge nudge wink wink you do know he's a poof" approach described in an excellent post by Clairwil. Maybe I'm just seeing a demon that isn't there, but if I'm not, then it seems the press have learned nothing from the outcry following Jan Moir's attempts to dance on Stephen Gately's grave.
I hope Purcell is in Australia because I know that if I were in his shoes it would be excruciating to watch what's now unfolding. The spotlight has been shone on his personal demons, and in the melee that's developing, we're in danger of giving into our own.
07 March 2010
I'll start by going through what we all know: