Poisoned politics and an escape act worthy of Houdini on the perfect day to bury bad news
IT was a day of high political drama when the fate of a First Minister mired in scandal hung in the balance.
But for her legion of spin doctors yesterday was also the ideal opportunity to bury bad news of a particularly toxic variety.
James Hamilton’s eagerly awaited report into Nicola Sturgeon’s conduct may have turned out to be the biggest damp squib in Holyrood’s history.
But it was also the most important standards probe since devolution, and clearly its outcome – whatever it turned out to be – would dominate the news agenda.
Then at 2.15 pm a government press release was issued with the heading ‘QEUH Case Note Review and Oversight Board Report’ – on such a momentous day, it’s the kind of anti-climactic title unlikely to grab much attention, with the media otherwise engaged.
And yet take a look at the bleak and damning conclusions of this review, led by Professor Mike Stevens, which found significant failings over infection prevention and control, governance and risk management at the £842million Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Glasgow.
It investigated 118 episodes of serious bacterial infection in 84 children and young people who received treatment for blood disease, cancer or related conditions at the Royal Hospital for Children, on the QEUH campus.
The report found a third of these infections were ‘most likely’ to have been linked to the hospital environment and that two of the 22 deaths were, at least in part, the result of their infection.
Bear in mind that these hospitals were opened, with much fanfare, back in 2015 – when Miss Sturgeon said they were ‘some of the most modern and best designed healthcare facilities in the world’.
It does take a certain steely presence of mind to sneak out a devastating release of this nature at roughly the moment when the First Minister is facing a potentially career-ending verdict – or you might even call it a cynical attempt to manipulate the headlines.
There’s devious, there’s unedifying, there’s ‘news management’ – and then there’s the SNP Government, for which every crisis, even one as acute as the Sturgeon/Salmond debacle, is an opportunity – a chance to take the spotlight away from one of the most disturbing hospital inspection reports ever produced.
That children in the 21st century could be admitted to an institution which, according to the First Minister was one of the ‘best designed’ in the world, and never come out again because of bugs they caught on the premises is utterly repugnant.
But the fact that this report was quietly emailed out to journalists while the nation’s media were poised for the publication of the Hamilton report is unforgivable.
Clearly nothing is off-limits anymore for this tired, desperate government, just weeks away from an election.
A public inquiry into hospital scandals including this one is due to start later this year, by which time Health Secretary Jeane Freeman will be long gone, probably raking in public cash in quangoland, where she made a decent living before her disastrous stint presiding over the NHS.
Sturgeon: in the clear after a Houdini-esque escape act?
Mind you, a Referendum Bill was also press released in the run-up to the publication of the Hamilton findings yesterday – setting out plans for another vote on independence after the pandemic but ‘in the first half of the new parliamentary term’.
Well, it’s nice of them to wait until a major public health emergency has abated, but is this really how they’ve been spending their time – crafting draft legislation on dismantling the UK in the midst of a deadly contagion that has laid waste to the economy and killed more than 7,000 Scots?
That’s a moral abdication on a spectacular scale, as much as it’s a political failure, and yet this plan for yet more constitutional carnage was bound not to get the close attention it deserved.
Either one of these important stories would have been front-page news on any normal day – assuming a normal news day does still exist in these tumultuous times.
Slipping it out into the public domain yesterday meant it wasn’t afforded much scrutiny, but support for independence and indeed for the SNP is going backwards, reducing the likelihood of an SNP majority.
Without it, the plan for another Scexit vote is dead in the water, so the timing for unleashing this draft Bill, in the dying days of parliament, was never going to be auspicious – better to pick a moment when attention was diverted elsewhere.
That’s the modus operandi of a government obsessed with ‘message discipline’, and now up to its neck in secrets it can no longer keep and failures it simply can’t cover up any more.
You might also wonder why it took them quite so long to release the 61-page Hamilton report – well, there were more than 80 redactions, so there was plenty of work to do.
It also meant time to pore over the content for broadcast media, which by and large has given Miss Sturgeon an easy ride, was limited ahead of the evening news bulletins.
Her acolytes were quick to claim Mr Hamilton, a former top prosecutor, had saved her skin, making today’s no confidence vote a complete irrelevance.
The publication of a separate report by the Holyrood committee probing the Salmond shambles is expected to be more damning than Mr Hamilton’s (though that wouldn’t be hard).
Even so, the Sturgeonistas are probably right – it’s hard to imagine Miss Sturgeon is going anywhere, even though she is damaged goods, and a stench still hangs around the entire saga.
Yet between the lines of Mr Hamilton’s even-handed prose there are some subtle implied criticisms of the Sturgeon regime.
His parting shot is: ‘Consideration might also be given to whether some of the provisions of the Ministerial Code which apply to Ministers should also apply with appropriate modifications to special advisers.’
In a tawdry affair characterised by pathological secrecy, the intimidation of a parliamentary committee and a systematic failure to comply with its demands, the role of the special adviser or SPAD has been overlooked.
That’s unwise, because these taxpayer-funded apparatchiks wield great power – they might have cooked up the idea of trying to camouflage the devastating disclosures about the tragic deaths of child cancer patients.
Not that you’d ever know as they’re too clever to be caught out, most of the time.
No one will carry the can for this scandal, let’s face it – these days, it seems, almost no one does, for anything, and it’s likely that Miss Sturgeon has pulled off an act of escapology worthy of Houdini, against all the odds.
But if the SNP really does respect every word of Mr Hamilton’s adjudication, it should take heed of his sage counsel – and act to rein in the ranks of unaccountable SPADs who have poisoned our politics for too long.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 23, 2021.