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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 18:56 GMT
Bad days at the office for McLeish
Henry McLeish and media
Team McLeish has failed to quell the row
By BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor

It's had a grim humour all of its own, has Officegate.

Told that the first minister was visiting Deutsche Bank's new base in Edinburgh, one wag commented: "He'll be off to get a loan to pay back his allowances."

Another chipped in: "He's probably mortgaging St Andrew's House."

Okay, it's fairly limp stuff but it's the standard response among the chatterati to stories which threaten to overwhelm us.

Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor: "The story keep coming back"
As I said on BBC Radio Scotland, this plot is a combination of Groundhog Day and Alice in Wonderland.

The story keeps coming back, each time in a more surreal form.

Labour backbenchers have taken to going round with eyes dulled and heads bowed, astounded that a squabble over office expenses threatens the first minister and the image of the entire Scottish Parliament.

But that, incredibly, is where we are as I write this at the outset of Henry McLeish's make or break week.

My colleagues - and occasional critics - will tell you that I am seldom given to hyperbole.

If anything, I am more inclined towards subtle understatement. It is my own instinctive approach - and, I am convinced, ultimately a service to the public. Better a few calm words than a prolonged shriek.

This has indisputably become a crisis - by which I mean an issue which threatens to destabilise the political structure

Incidentally, in keeping with my instincts, I deeply dislike the sundry "Gates" which are thrown our way. (My use of such a device at the head of this piece was pale irony - but then you got that already)

Watergate was an authentic and deeply embedded scandal but later imitations slouch along by comparison.

However, this has indisputably become a crisis - by which I mean an issue which threatens to destabilise the political structure rather than simply cause temporary irritation to a minister or department.

To all observers - detached or partisan - that fact is incredible. But there it is.

Firstly, a few points about the critics. This was a fishing expedition by the Conservative Leader David McLetchie.

He expected to hook a flounder or two - then found a whopper tugging at his line.

David McLetchie
David McLetchie: Went fishing for weak spot
He did not - does not - think the first minister is a crook. He cannot believe that this has run and run.

A fishing expedition is far from dishonourable. In the absence of government, a little harmless sport is all that is available to junior opposition parties - the status occupied by the Tories in Scotland.

I understand why Labour fought back with accusations of "gutter politics". That is a familiar political strategy.

The counter-attack didn't work, however, because Mr McLetchie has phrased his questions carefully; challenging Mr McLeish to explain, rather than quit.

It may be said that a responsible opposition party wouldn't go too far down this road.

I prefer to argue that an effective Scottish Executive wouldn't have let them. They would have deployed towering road blocks long before this.

Why did Alex Salmond offer words of comfort to Henry McLeish on the BBC's Question Time?

Then the Nationalists. Why so coy, initially?

Why did John Swinney not raise the issue at first minister's questions a fortnight ago, in the week it first surfaced?

Why was the issue initially delegated to Fiona Hyslop, rather than remaining in the leader's office?

Why did Alex Salmond offer words of comfort to Henry McLeish on the BBC's Question Time?

Cynics say it's because the Scottish National Party doesn't want the spotlight turned on party finances more generally.

Certainly, the Scottish Tories are relatively liberated on this topic.

They won't face many awkward questions about Westminster constituency offices because, for the previous four years, they didn't have any.

Henry McLeish
Question Time was a disaster for the first minister
I prefer, however, a more charitable explanation. I believe John Swinney spotted from a relatively early stage the potential for this issue to stain devolved self-government - to which Nationalists are naturally attached as the potential precursor to something more.

I believe the SNP are concerned that mud sticking to the office of first minister will smear itself across the entire project. That the Scottish Parliament will seem second-rate.

That popular opinion will bypass the minutiae of the issue - and garner a vague impression of guddle and mishandling.

Now - at the start of the week - I sense a collective exasperation, almost a collective anxiety, across party lines.

Labour, naturally, just wants it all to end. Similarly, broadly, the Lib Dems - who cannot believe the mess that their executive colleagues are in.

Among opposition parties, the Nationalists in particular still seem a little shaken by developments.

Poorly handled

The Tories are more resolute - but seem, perversely, almost to be willing the first minister to answer their challenges.

To date, this issue has been consistently poorly handled by Team McLeish.

They didn't grasp the seriousness of the challenge, sufficiently early.

They didn't take the opportunity to squash it by spelling out the facts in the required mind-numbing detail.

Henry McLeish himself seemed halting and unsure at various points.

He plainly felt the issue was relatively trivial, that it could be closed down by his say-so.

He did not grasp swiftly enough that it had moved beyond factual considerations into the alternative reality zone that is Scottish politics.

His contribution to Question Time was less than assured.

But inside Team McLeish, things have palpably changed. They know they need to come out fighting. They grasp the concept. Perhaps they were a little uncertain previously. Well, they 'ken noo'.

See also:

05 Nov 01 | Scotland
McLeish shuns expenses questions
04 Nov 01 | Scotland
Taxman to probe 'Officegate'
02 Nov 01 | Scotland
Swinney urges first minister to act
02 Nov 01 | Scotland
McLeish fails to quell expenses row
01 Nov 01 | Scotland
McLeish issues office row challenge
30 Oct 01 | Scotland
Pressure builds on first minister
30 Oct 01 | Scotland
Labour admits McLeish office 'error'
23 Oct 01 | Scotland
McLeish pays back expenses
04 Oct 01 | Scotland
Minister faces expenses scrutiny
13 Jun 01 | Scotland
McLeish standards inquiry dropped
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