Court throws out bid to unseat Alistair Carmichael

The petitioners claim that Carmichael misled voters with his actions surrounding the leak of an incorrect memo. Picture: Greg Macvean

The petitioners claim that Carmichael misled voters with his actions surrounding the leak of an incorrect memo. Picture: Greg Macvean

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FORMER Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has survived an attempt to unseat him as Orkney and Shetland MP after a court ruled that “blatant lies” he told over leaking a memo about Nicola Sturgeon did not breach electoral law.

Four campaigners from his constituency brought the case against the Liberal Democrat after it emerged he had authorised the secret release of a confidential memo which suggested the SNP leader wanted to see David Cameron returned as prime minister – and lied to journalists about doing so.

We’ve done something remarkable. Carmichael has had to account for his actions and his conduct in open court

Phemie Matheson

But Mr Carmichael is still facing a Parliamentary inquiry into his conduct and the possibility that he has brought Parliament into disrepute which could yet see him suspended or even kicked out of the House of Commons.

The politician insisted yesterday the case was a “politically motivated” attempt to oust the last Lib Dem in Scotland, but campaigners said the Election Court yesterday issued a damning indictment about Mr Carmichael’s conduct.

Two judges in Edinburgh ruled that the former Scotland secretary’s dishonesty about the memo in a Channel 4 News interview was about politics, which meant he was in the clear. It was crucially not proven that had misrepresented his own character – just the political manoeuvres involved, the judges said.

Mr Carmichael yesterday said of the case: “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.”

Read more: Carmichael campaigners say they lost on ‘slimmest of margins’

Read more: Alistair Carmichael ‘I wasn’t fully truthful over leaked memo’

The four constituents who brought the action said it had been lost on “the slimmest of legal technicalities” and highlighted “damning” comments made about Mr Carmichael by judges Lady Paton and Lord Matthews.

One of the campaigners, Phemie Matheson, last night said she was “disappointed” by the outcome. She said: “This is not a vindication – the court has said that Carmichael has been evasive and self-serving.

“We’ve done something remarkable. Carmichael has had to account for his actions and his conduct in open court … and it shed light on some very, very worrying practices in the political culture of Westminster. I don’t think it leaves him in a good light. I think the trust that he had built up, certainly in my opinion is no longer there. I believe that it has held politics in a very grim light.”

The four raised more than £170,000 via a crowdfunding appeal, but this could be swallowed up if Mr Carmichael’s legal team pursue the group for costs, a move which he is understood to be considering.

An SNP spokesman said: “Alistair Carmichael told a ‘blatant lie’ to improve his chance of re-election. While he prevailed in the election court on a strict interpretation of the law, it is much more doubtful that he or his party will survive the court of public opinion.”

The case centred on a Channel 4 interview he gave on 5 April, in which Mr Carmichael denied having prior knowledge of the leaking of the memo – which emerged about a month before voters went to the polls.

Following a Cabinet Office inquiry, he later admitted he had allowed his special adviser, Euan Roddin, to release details of the document, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 3 April.

A three-day Election Court hearing last month focused on whether Mr Carmichael’s actions had breached Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Lady Paton said: ‘’In the Channel 4 interview, the first respondent [Mr Carmichael] did not expressly make a false statement to the effect that his personal character and conduct was such that he would never be involved in a leaking exercise.

“What he said was a blatant but simple lie about his lack of awareness of one particular leak. We are not persuaded that the false statement proved to have been made was in relation to anything other than the first respondent’s awareness (or lack of awareness) of a political machination. Accordingly, we are not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the words used by the first respondent amounted to a ‘false statement of fact in relation to [his] personal character or conduct’.”

But the judges said they were satisfied it had been proved beyond reasonable doubt Mr Carmichael made the false statement of fact “for the purpose of affecting (positively) his own return at the election”.

They described Mr Carmichael’s response to the Cabinet Office inquiry as “unimpressive”, adding his approach had been “at best disingenuous, at worst evasive and self-serving”.

Mr Carmichael is still facing a inquiry by the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, into claims he broke the Commons’ code of conduct in three areas.

UK Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “This was the right outcome and Alistair’s focus will remain on delivering for the people of Orkney and Shetland in Parliament.”