Thomson seeks comeback but SNP leaders keep their distance
Michelle Thomson was sitting in the House of Commons chamber when she suddenly found herself overwhelmed by the controversy over her property dealings that had led to her suspension from the SNP.
As the tears welled up, she removed herself from her erstwhile party colleagues beside her on the green benches and took the little-used lift that leads to the roof of the Westminster parliament.
Alone, save for Big Ben towering above her, she wept uncontrollably as she looked over the Thames winding through the streets of London beneath her.
It was a moment of unrestrained emotional release in the midst of a saga that has seen a burgeoning political career ruined, her integrity questioned and placed stresses on her family that she believes may have contributed to a life-threatening illness suffered by her husband.
“There were a good couple of hours where I just couldn’t stop crying – which is quite unlike me… I was thinking: ‘When will this ever end?’” Thomson said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday.
Around 14 months after she broke down on the Commons roof, the former SNP MP finally got her answer last week when the Crown Office announced that no action will be taken against her following a police investigation into allegations of mortgage fraud.
An absence of credible evidence saw Scotland’s prosecution service release a statement that there should be “no criminal proceedings at this time”.
Speaking for the first time since the Crown Office statement, a defiant Thomson, 52, spoke of the toll the episode had taken on her family. She also made a thinly veiled attack on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over the way she was treated by the SNP and disclosed she still harbours political ambitions.
The former Edinburgh West MP revealed that her husband Peter, with whom she has two grown-up children, had suffered a major health scare while her political career was under the spotlight.
As soon as she heard that he had been rushed to hospital, she excused herself from her MP duties in London to be by his side.
“My husband had a deep vein thrombosis and multiple pulmonary emboli about a year ago. I got called away from Westminster as an emergency, because it was life-threatening,” she said. “He is a fit guy and goes to the gym regularly – no previous ill health and nothing since. I must admit we all wonder if that was related to the stress.”
Peter, the head of music at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, was caught up in the affair along with solicitor Christopher Hales and Thomson’s former business partner, Frank Gilbride. They and Thomson were reported to the procurator fiscal in December following a police investigation into the legal activities of Hales. No action is to be taken against any of them.
The police became involved after Hales was struck off by a Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) after he acted for Thomson’s property company M&F Property Solutions in a series of deals that raised the question of mortgage fraud.
The investigation centred on the use of so-called “back-to-back” deals, which involved properties being bought at below the market value then being resold at far higher prices, sometimes on the same day. In some cases, loans obtained for the properties were greater than the actual purchase price and, according to the SSDT, Hales failed to provide mortgage companies with key information used to prevent fraud.
One of the most damaging aspects of the affair was the suggestion that vulnerable people facing hard times had been exploited by being persuaded to sell their houses at a knock-down price.
Thomson, however, defended herself against such claims by insisting that she did not deal with the sellers.
“I joined what was running as an existing business where someone else dealt with all the sellers and visited all the houses,” she said. “My role was about growing the business, marketing, business planning and also to find buyers.”
According to Thomson, it was Gilbride who dealt with those looking to sell their homes and it was explained to them that they would be offered less than the market price. “So people saying stuff about ‘Oh, you targeted vulnerable people’ – that suggests to me that my former business partner [Gilbride] went to people who were struggling to sell and took advantage of them. No that was completely not the case,” she said. “He [Gilbride] had an existing website where people themselves, if they wanted to, could put in an inquiry. He would then phone them and discuss and say, ‘We might be able to find you a buyer, but you must understand it will be less than you will get offered for current market value.”
Thomson said she had trusted her solicitor on the matter.
“It’s complex,” she said. “Back-to-back mortgages were something that were used by many, many people in property and used by many, many solicitors. So if a solicitor says, ‘You know you can do this,’ they are in a position of knowledge. They are in a position of authority. I accepted what the solicitor said, as did many other investors. It is really important people understand this. When I put myself up as a prospective parliamentary candidate I had no idea that the solicitor had been struck off – none whatsoever. I had not seen him since about 2011. There is no reason why I should have seen him. He wasn’t a friend. He was simply a conveyancing solicitor I and many other people used.”
She found out that he had been struck off in September 2015, just as she was settling into her new career as an MP.
The events that followed were swift. She resigned the whip and her SNP membership was suspended – a course of disciplinary action that was followed shortly afterwards in the case of her colleague, Natalie McGarry, when the former Glasgow East MP became embroiled in a controversy over missing money.
Thomson was dismayed to be cast into the wilderness and was unable to hide her frustration at the way she had been treated by Strugeon.
“It may well be that she [Sturgeon] panicked when it happened and there was a lot of visibility on the 56 [SNP MPs], but it was disappointing for me that I have spent two years out on a limb,” said Thomson.
And then there was her de-selection by the SNP’s National Executive Committee (NEC) led by Sturgeon just ahead of this year’s general election.
Asked if she was happy at the way the First Minister dealt with her case, Thomson indicated she was disappointed that she wasn’t given a chance to explain herself to the NEC.
“I would have preferred to have been given the opportunity to put my side of the case,” said Thomson.
She told colleagues of her strong belief that she would be exonerated in the hope that her thoughts would get back to the NEC.
“I would have preferred to have a sit down or even a telephone call [with Sturgeon],” she said.
Alex Salmond, she said, had been “very supportive” of her, as had her SNP colleagues at Westminster.
“Angus Robertson [the then Westminster leader of the SNP] worked within the framework of the SNP. But the decisions that were made were not Angus Robertson’s – were not Alex Salmond’s. Nicola Sturgeon is now the leader of the party.”
When Thomson sat down with Scotland on Sunday, there still had not been any communication with the SNP leadership, an omission that clearly rankled. “I have not yet heard in any official capacity from the SNP, despite being clearly vindicated in what I have said all along,” she said, adding that if she didn’t hear something soon she would be “very disappointed”.
Despite her treatment, she said she remained a “strong supporter” of the party she joined aged 16.
Having served as an MP and before that a leading light in the campaign for Scottish independence, she said she would like to get back into SNP politics.
“I remain committed and I would like to continue to contribute to Scottish political life and I would like to continue in a way of shaping positive change for Scotland. Ultimately I would have to accept that it would be up to the SNP. What I said during the independence referendum was that I wanted to use my skills, knowledge and drive to try and shape a better Scotland… If the opportunity came along, would I once more go into a political sphere? Yes, I would, because I meant what I said and I mean it now.”
On the question of whether her reputation had been tarnished by the events that unfolded following her election in 2015, Thomson admitted that had worried her for a long time.
However, she takes pride in the work she did on the House of Commons investigation into Sir Philip Green and his management of British Home Stores. There was also the moment when she stood up in the Commons and spoke of her experience of being raped at the age of 14 – a widely admired speech designed to support other rape survivors.
She said her friend, the former SNP MP Roger Mullin, had reassured her that her parliamentary work will stand her in good stead.
“His view is that the work I have done on the Select Committee and also the way I have conducted myself through this will not have done my reputation any harm. I would like to hope – and this is what I believe – that people are inherently fair and believe in fairness. Now that it is irrefutable that I have been completely vindicated I believe people will be fair.”
Almost two years after she became embroiled in controversy, Thomson admitted that she was “hopelessly inexperienced” in dealing with the pitfalls of a life in politics when she started.
Before her property deals were subjected to scrutiny, she found herself on the Six O’Clock News, which was reporting that her details were on the Ashley Madison dating site. She had been the victim of a smear campaign.
“I found that – at an early stage – a disturbing event because I am, amazingly, still happily married after 26 years. For my children I felt that was disturbing,” she said.
“I have been targeted on a number of occasions. I hope now it will come to an end.”
An SNP spokesperson said yesterday: “Michelle Thomson stepped down in 2015 until the investigation was concluded. She took a dignified approach while the investigation was under way and will be relieved to put this affair behind her. We wish her well for the future and will be happy to engage with her about her membership of the SNP.”