Mike Russell is, without doubt, the most combative and articulate of Alex Salmond’s ministers – but he will need every ounce of that skill if he is to crush completely the allegations, claims and counter claims swirling around him at the moment.
The Education Secretary is under attack over claims that he may have broken the rules governing the conduct of MSPs and ministers over his intervention in plans to close primary schools in Argyll and Bute.
This has come about because of a highly unusual – perhaps even unique – set of circumstances. Mr Russell is the Education Secretary. If, as has happened in the past, the Education Secretary has to deal with school closures in his or her own constituency, then the system has provisions to allow that to happen. The minister would be allowed to intervene as a constituency MSP – as long as he then passes the ultimate decision on the closures to another minister.
In this case, however, Mr Russell is not the constituency MSP for Argyll and Bute but he has a very real interest in the seat. Mr Russell is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Argyll and Bute and that is where this whole issue gets really messy.
There is no real provision in the guidance issued to MSPs or ministers to cope with this unusual situation. Mr Russell’s future as a politician hangs, to a large extent, on the result of the Argyll and Bute constituency vote in May. He has campaigned in the constituency, he is desperately trying to win votes in the constituency, he lives in the constituency and his wife is a teacher in the constituency: yet he is not the MSP for the area – hence the trouble he is now in.
Mr Russell knew that the closure of more than 20 rural primary schools would be an election issue and he, as the Education Secretary, might well end up getting the blame and suffering at the polls as a result.
So, what was he to do? Get involved but stress that he was doing so as the SNP candidate, not the Education Secretary? Or try to influence the SNP group on the council to retreat on the closure plans? Mr Russell has apparently tried to do both while attempting to stay onside with the both the Ministerial Code and MSPs’ code.
The results have been confusing, to say the least, which is why Mr Russell now faces an investigation by Holyrood’s standards commissioner.
This is what appears to have happened. In November last year, the parents at one of the threatened schools invited Mr Russell to a meeting. He cleared this with Jim Mather, the constituency MSP, but did not, apparently, inform the council’s education department.
At the meeting, he clearly told the parents he was there as the SNP candidate, not as the Education Secretary, but one parent then stated afterwards that Mr Russell had been invited purely because he was the Education Secretary.
Then, later that same month, Mr Russell intervened with the local SNP group and it is here that things get even more murky.
Mr Russell sent an email to SNP councillors from his parliamentary email account not, crucially, from a private email account, asking that the consultation process on the school closures be stopped.
In that email (subsequently leaked) Mr Russell stated: “If the group supports these proposals next week, we will have very severe problems which could be very destructive of our reputation and prospects.”
The message appeared pretty clear – go through with these plans and we might not win the seat at the Scottish elections in May.
In all these instances, Mr Russell has claimed that he has been acting solely and wholly as the SNP candidate and, if that was all he was, there would be no suggestion of any wrongdoing.
But Mr Russell is not just the SNP candidate for Argyll and Bute, he is also the Education Secretary and that is not something he can drop for half an hour when he wants to write an email, particularly when that email comes from his parliamentary email account.
It is this grey area between Mr Russell stating that he has been acting only as the SNP candidate and the knowledge that all those on the ground have that he is also the Education Secretary that has caused the problems.
He may say he is just the SNP candidate but is that how his interventions have been received?
For instance, after his email, the SNP councillors quit the coalition – as he asked them to. Would they have done so had the request come from any run-of-the-mill candidate?
The ministerial code is quite clear. It informs ministers they must ensure that “no conflict arises between their private interests and their public duties”. Likewise, the MSPs’ code of conduct states that an MSP cannot intervene in an area outwith his or her constituency without prior agreement.
Mr Russell’s private interests lie in being elected as the next MSP for Argyll and Bute. His public duties lie in performing his role as Education Secretary. This is not his constituency, but it may be his constituency come the elections in May.
It has hardly helped Mr Russell’s arguments that the chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council has written to the Scottish Government expressing concern over the way the school closure issue has been handled.
So is there a case to answer? Labour certainly think there is. It was a former Labour parliamentary candidate, David Graham, who made the complaint to the standards commission and Labour clearly see the potential to subject Mr Russell to an investigation and to embroil him in controversy in the run up to the election.
Given Mr Russell’s reputation for pugnaciousness, he will undoubtedly come out fighting and, because there is so much confusion and so many grey areas here, he is likely to emerge intact, both from an initial commissioner’s investigation and from any subsequent committee sparring to come.
But there is extreme party politics at play here too, both inside and outside the SNP. Outside the SNP, Labour has seen the opportunity to drag another SNP minister into controversy. They managed it with the former transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, over the pre-Christmas snow, they managed it with the finance secretary, John Swinney, over the Tartan Tax and the health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, over her lobbying for a convicted fraudster.
If they could somehow tarnish the reputation of Mr Russell too, that would be seen as a notable pre-election success – and forcing him out of office would indeed be the icing on the cake for Labour.
But inside the SNP, too, there are also forces at play. Mr Russell has never enjoyed unqualified support within the Nationalist movement partly because he is seen as arrogant by some, smug by others and not left-wing enough by others.
Somebody leaked Mr Russell’s email to SNP councillors, the email which is causing him so many problems now which shows that, at least to some, he remains a somewhat divisive character.
Mr Russell will probably head off this standards’ committee challenge and survive to fight the election in May. However, he will have learned one key issue of public perception – that what you say you are, and what people think you are, are often at odds.