The best thing for scandal-hit politicians to do is leave the scene immediately

Originally published in the Scotsman on Saturday, July 10, 2021

When news of Matt Hancock’s lockdown-busting affair broke, my thoughts immediately went to my former colleagues in the Scottish Conservative party.

Perhaps I should have been sympathising with the wronged families of the two individuals involved, or even their staff members who would be affected by these indiscretions.

Instead, I pictured the multiple despairing heads in hands at Scottish Conservative HQ in Edinburgh.

How are they going to convincingly defend this when the health secretary refuses to quit and Boris doesn’t sack him?

Fortunately, Mr Hancock only clung on for a day or so, meaning the discomfort around the scandal would only last for a short period.

But this is what disgraced politicians who’ve been caught out rarely appreciate – it’s those left behind to defend their actions who often suffer the most.

For me, it brought back memories of when former top Tory adviser Dominic Cummings was rumbled for taking a family trip – something that was explicitly against the rules he’d helped set.

Like Hancock, he was a senior representative of a government which was depriving a nation of its civil liberties. Like Hancock, he didn’t think the restrictions applied to him.

The Cummings news broke on a Saturday, which sparked an unusual Sunday crisis call of all the main players in the Scottish Conservatives at that time.

It was clear Jackson Carlaw, the then leader, was sick at what Cummings had done and was minded to call for his head.

But other factors were brought into the discussion.

Inexplicably, it appeared Boris Johnson wasn’t going to sack him and unlikely Cummings would quit, so what benefit was there in us demanding his head?

He’d still be in place months down the line and we’d look ineffectual for calling for something that never happened, not to mention the souring of relations between Edinburgh and London such a move would cause.

But MSPs were getting in touch to say their inboxes were flooding with complaints.

For some reason people were annoyed that they weren’t allowed to visit dying relatives or attend family funerals while one of the men who’d devised these rules was gallivanting across the north of England.

Some politicians said they’d never had a response like it in many years of politics – not even Brexit or independence had sparked such strong feelings among constituents.

But it was also argued that if we went against Boris, many of those emails would simply be replaced by hardline unionists fuming that we’d gone to war with our UK counterparts.

So it was decided a statement should be issued on Sunday evening which declared: “I’ve heard what the Prime Minister has said and it is a situation for him to judge. He has reached a conclusion and we must all now focus on continuing to beat this dreadful pandemic.”

Almost as soon as I’d clicked ‘send’ to the distribution list of around 500 Scottish and UK journalists, it was obvious from the immediate reaction that this would go down very badly.

One senior Scottish hack even responded to the email with the word “LOL”.

I think we all realised it was a mistake and by Tuesday poor old Jackson had to stand in front of a TV camera in Holyrood to say, actually, it probably was time for Cummings to go after all.

The point here is that this episode dominated our media operation for the best part of a week.

At that time, opposition parties were beginning to build up a head of steam on the Scottish Government’s poor testing roll-out and the emerging scandal of care homes being forced to accept elderly patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 in hospital.

That’s where the headlines should have been.

But because of Cummings’ refusal to quit and Johnson’s cowardice in standing by him, those points were lost.

This sort of thing happened repeatedly to the Scottish Conservatives during my time there, from hated and totally pointless UK Government policies like the bedroom tax and so-called “rape clause”, to scandals involving senior political figures.

For example, during the 2016 campaign in which we were trying to push Ruth Davidson as the strong opposition and the great detoxifier of the Tory brand (which of course she was) we spent several days talking about nothing other than David Cameron’s tax affairs.

This is nothing to do with us, we thought, yet here it is costing us votes and positive media coverage.

But it’s not just the Tories who’ve had to put plans on hold to defend the conduct of others.

After former chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood’s illicit trips from Edinburgh to Fife, Nicola Sturgeon had to dedicate her briefings to defending the medic, and then her decision not to sack her.

At one point, such was the monstering Dr Calderwood was receiving from the Scottish press at a live briefing, the First Minister simply stopped passing questions over to her.

Months later, Ms Sturgeon got so irked at having to explain the actions of MP Margaret Ferrier – who took a 400-mile train journey despite testing positive for coronavirus – she called her ‘Margaret Covid’ by mistake.

And let’s not miss out Scottish Labour, some of whom are probably suffering from a form of PTSD such was the amount of time they had to spend covering for Jeremy Corbyn and his crackpot cronies.

The impact of these things on right-minded and clean-living politicians is huge, and the strain on all members of the team is exhausting.

Scandal-beset politicians, if they’re serious about the greater good and wellbeing of their party, should leave the scene promptly and without complaint.

Failure to do so can be more harmful than the original crime.