Self-inflicted wounds are killing this government

by | 19 Nov 2023

iPadgate didn't 'just happen', it is the consequence of incompetent decision-making by the SNP, not Matheson. If it doesn't stop, the damage may become unrecoverable.

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t bother commenting on the Matheson/iPad affair as it has already been endlessly dissected. Additionally, I don’t take any pleasure in making life harder for good people who make an honest mistake – both of which I believe to be the case in the Matheson affair. But I think those on the pro-independence side have missed one of the most important aspects.

Put simply, this is a small matter which has been handled so abysmally it’s turned into a big matter, and this is happening a lot. I don’t for a second believe that this is really the fault of Mr Matheson himself, and the implications of that should concern us.

Let me explain why. The second the holiday iPad bill became public knowledge it was a party issue because of the inevitable fall-out. This was going to harm the SNP, and so the idea that Matheson has been navigating this affair on his own is daft. This has been led by a strategy and media team. And they’ve royally screwed him.

I’ve seen this happen in political strategy and media relations so many times; the initial belief that you can brazen it out, the growing awareness you can’t, the sudden need to backfill a case to minimise the damage, the inevitably convoluted story you have to tell to do that.

Because the story as it stands doesn’t really all add up to me. I wouldn’t be awfully surprised if Mr Matheson had just let his kids watch the match on the iPad and I couldn’t even nearly get exercised if he did. Who among us hasn’t used a work device for personal use? Is anyone really suggesting the kids would interrupt the football to rake through constituent housing issues?

He shouldn’t have done it, but it’s so minor I can’t care. Likewise, it looks like he got back, realised what he’d done, and a £3,000 slap on the wrist was seen as appropriate, and I can’t get the slightest exercised about that either. If this had been intentional or malicious he should have repaid the whole thing, but this was a mistake. Fretting about £8k when ferry-building is costing hundreds of millions isn’t going to keep me up at night.

I don’t know that this all happened but frankly that’s basically the worst possible version and I still don’t care – and I don’t think anyone else would have either (other than a performative opposition). ‘Sorry, I made a mistake, I should have been more open about it and perhaps the contribution I made wasn’t big enough, but it really was just a normal family mess-up made in good faith’.

Had he done that in January we’d have forgotten all about it by now. In fact, when the iPad bill came to light two weeks ago I think he could have said that then and not had any reason to resign. It would have been fine. But instead the SNP strategy team decided that being smart-arsed about it was a better idea.

There were so, so many off-ramps in this affair and someone decided to take none of them – that is simply incompetence

Basically someone has advised him to deny this or he has acted against advice, and I’m almost certain it was the former. They thought they could just get away with it. Then the inevitable unravelling takes place and the story becomes less and less credible.

For example, I don’t buy that the IT department was incapable of working out what had happened here as we are told because journalists figured it out in two minutes with one FoI request and a very basic knowledge of Scottish football. I don’t believe this was beyond the ability to know and so I feel slightly insulted that I’m being fed this line.

And remember, in theory Mr Matheson is handling this all himself, so then he discovers what has really happened, but in the official version he doesn’t tell the First Minister about it for five days. My arse he didn’t; the media team would be fine-tooth-combing this affair in the hope of making it go away.

At this point the route out was more painful but not that painful. Mr Matheson had been (or was told to be) less than fully forthcoming and you can’t do that as a Minister. There is a very simply formula at this point – apologise, resign and spend a short penance on the back benches before a return. It’s a time-honoured formulation. At the very latest Matheson could have been back for a post-General Election reshuffle.

But no, the decision is made to keep stonewalling, and that leads to Mr Matheson telling a direct lie to the press on the Monday. That is a flat-out no-on. You can’t do that. This also leads to two other things. First, a story has to be concocted to insulate the First Minister from this. I’m sceptical he didn’t know what was going on, but they have to claim that he didn’t, which leaves Matheson seemingly in the position of having lied to his own leader. I doubt that. He’s an honest man.

And then you need an even more elaborate get-out. I have absolutely zero doubt about the sincerity of the anguish Matheson would find him in by this point nor have I any doubt about his commitment to his family. But nowadays the go-to defence for politicians under severe pressure is to take the ‘talk about your kids and cry’ route. Everyone and their dog uses this technique these days.

Honestly, if Matheson really wanted to protect his kids he’d just have said ‘personal use was made by mistake’. But because they refused to take that stance earlier, that wouldn’t have been enough. So they ramp it up with an elaborate story about hotspots and the need to lie to the media to protect his kids (which he could have done by not mentioning them).

I don’t know that this isn’t true, but the problem when you tell little fibs is that it’s hard to be certain about what other facts are being bent. What I’m trying to explain here is that there were so, so many off-ramps in this affair and someone decided to take none of them. That is simply incompetence.

When the SNP strategy team find a pothole in the road they bridge it by chucking down a bear trap which they then walk straight into

And this is happening and again. I don’t have space here to go over the multiple examples but this is all happening a couple of weeks after the First Minister clearly told a little fib about when the Scottish Government were asked for WhatsApp messages by the Covid inquiry.

That in turn was because someone in the strategy team thought it would be clever to wilfully misinterpret the earlier request from the inquiry asking for those messages. It’s the utterly pointless nature of the ‘they didn’t ask until September’ fib that gets me. It was, at best, a 30-second ‘zinger’ for a FMQs which was utterly unnecessary and has resulted in Yousaf having to refuse to refer himself for independent adjudication on whether he misled parliament (about which he has no choice because I’m a long way from confident he’d be cleared).

Plus the SNP has managed to pick two fights with the Covid inquiry already – which pointedly didn’t back Sturgeon’s claim she was legally prohibited from saying if she had deleted WhatsApps and which testily demanded ‘clarification’ on the September email line. For what? Is this wise? Is the ANP leadership trying to alienate an inquiry which could be damaging for them?

And that’s only ten minutes after they got caught using renewable energy stats they knew weren’t correct, and about four weeks after the same team said ‘fuck it, let’s announce a Council Tax freeze but let’s not consult anyone or work out how much it will cost’. Which comes a week after…

This is the point. This strategy/media team are utterly screwing up the SNP. When they find a pothole in the road they bridge it by chucking down a bear trap which they then walk straight into, so they thrown down another and walk into that. They seem to think their purpose in life is to outsmart the journalists to deny all fault, like Ms Sturgeon used to do time and again.

But the problem isn’t the journalists, it’s the public. I’ve now been hearing the views of SNP voters in my ‘civilian’ life who just don’t believe any of this. And trust really is like virginity – when its gone, its gone. The SNP is losing the public at a rate of knots that should worry us all. I’m arguing against people in the supermarket or the barbers who are saying ‘I’m pro-indy but I think the SNP needs a spell in opposition’.

This is really dangerous. Until about now I have been pretty confident that it is still possible for the SNP to get out of this vicious circle, set a new path and regain trust. And I was pretty confident that the independence movement could get its act together and regain momentum fairly quickly. I’m beginning to worry that this SNP team is doing so much damage that I may be wrong and the path back may be become more difficult to navigate.

As someone who has had a career in political strategy and media relations, what is infuriating me is that not a single one of the examples I cite above is an actual scandal or an actual crisis. They’re all minor incidents or 100 per cent avoidable. It is the SNP team which is making them into crises.

I honestly, genuinely see Michael Matheson mainly as a victim of all of this. He’s a good man and has been a solid Minister. There was no need at all for any of this to happen. These are all self-inflicted wounds and I worry that more are inevitable. If you support independence, you should worry too.

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