Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Salmond faces calls to sack adviser Campbell Gunn

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Media captionAlex Salmond faces calls to sack his senior adviser Campbell Gunn

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has faced new calls to sack one of his senior advisers who made a false claim about the mother of a disabled child.

Campbell Gunn emailed a newspaper to complain about Clare Lally's description as an "ordinary mum", after she spoke at a pro-Union event.

Mr Salmond told parliament Mr Gunn made a "mistake and a misjudgement" and had issued a "comprehensive apology".

Opposition parties said the adviser must be dismissed.

Speaking during question time at Holyrood, the first minister said Mr Gunn had not made a personal attack on Ms Lally, nor was he responsible for abuse directed towards Ms Lally - actions which would have required his sacking under the code of conduct for special advisers.

The row happened after Ms Lally spoke at an event organised by the pro-Union Better Together campaign on Monday, to mark the final 100 days of campaigning before the Scottish independence referendum.

The whys and wherefores

Image copyright PA

She told the rally how she was grateful for the care health workers had given her seven-year-old twin girls, one of whom has cerebral palsy, saying she was "just an ordinary mum from Clydebank campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK".

Mr Gunn, the former political editor of the Sunday Post, later contacted The Telegraph with information about Ms Lally's links to the Labour Party.

In an email, he wrongly claimed she was the daughter-in-law of Pat Lally, the former Labour provost of Glasgow.

Mr Salmond said: "I think Campbell Gunn made both a mistake and a misjudgement.

Image caption Clare Lally spoke at a Better Together event on Monday
Image caption Campbell Gunn was a political journalist before becoming a special adviser to First Minister Alex Salmond

"The mistake was obvious - saying that somebody was Pat Lally's daughter-in-law, when clearly Clare is not, is a mistake.

"The misjudgement is believing that drawing attention in an email to someone's Labour Party connections, whether it's a member of the shadow cabinet or any other connection, was an appropriate thing to do.

"That was a misjudgement because Clare's views on caring and other matters stand, regardless of her Labour Party connection.

What the government code of conduct for special advisers says:

"They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.

"The highest standards of conduct are expected of special advisers and, specifically, the preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks has no part to play in the job of being a special adviser as it has no part to play in the conduct of public life.

"Any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed by the first minister."

"Because he made a mistake and a misjudgement, I asked Campbell to apologise, which he did immediately and comprehensively."

Ms Lally, who refused to accept Mr Gunn's apology, said she had been subjected to "disgraceful, shocking and disgusting" abuse on social media after the false allegation about her relationship to Pat Lally appeared on the pro-independence Wings Over Scotland website.

BBC Scotland found several tweets attacking Ms Lally over her Labour links as well as some more abusive examples, including one accusing her of using her daughter's health conditions to scaremonger about the NHS.

The first minister insisted his adviser played no role in that.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: "Since we in this chamber - just about everyone - has had the privilege of knowing Campbell Gunn over many years - no one in this chamber seriously believes that Campbell Gunn was responsible for orchestrating any such abuse."

ANALYSIS - James Cook, BBC News Scotland correspondent

Campbell Gunn is surviving on his reputation.

The former journalist and folk-musician is widely regarded as a decent man and is well-liked across the political divide at Holyrood.

In the Scottish Parliament, Alex Salmond made no attempt to distance himself from his senior special adviser, instead mounting a very personal defence.

In effect, the first minister was appealing to a jury of Mr Gunn's peers to consider the good character of the accused and accept his innocence.

The charge against Mr Gunn relates to section 7 of the code of conduct for special advisers, which prescribes automatic dismissal for an adviser involved in "the preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks".

Whether or not Mr Gunn's partially inaccurate email to The Telegraph alerting them to Clare Lally's Labour party links amounts to either of the above is the key question.

Mr Salmond says the email was a "mistake" and a "misjudgment". He clearly does not regard it as crossing the line to become "inappropriate material" or a "personal attack".

However at a routine briefing following question time, a spokesman for Mr Salmond added fuel to the fire.

Asked whether the email was "appropriate", the spokesman replied: "Clearly not."

There was a murmur of surprise from reporters in the room and a few raised eyebrows.

It later became clear the person required to judge whether or not the code had been broken is none other than the first minister himself.

With that responsibility, and with such a robust, loyal defence of his employee, Mr Salmond's reputation in this affair is now tied to that of Mr Gunn.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Alex Salmond told MSPs Campbell Gunn had made a comprehensive apology

Labour leader Johann Lamont said of Ms Lally: "She's a champion for everyone who believes a bullying government should be stood up to - everyone who refuses to be shouted down by thugs with an iPad.

Ms Lamont added: "Does the first minister not realise that if he doesn't sack Campbell Gunn, we can only conclude that all the bullying that goes on - wherever it comes - is done by order, by design, by him."

Referring to the code of conduct, Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: "The code here doesn't just prescribe what's right and wrong - it actually states what the sanction should be.

"The code says, when a special adviser breaks the rules in this way, he should be automatically dismissed - what part of that does the first minister not understand?"

Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat leader, added: "The intention from the special adviser was not to help with the Lally family tree - the intention was a personal attack on Clare Lally, and that is a clear breach of the code."

'Guilty of a mistake'

Later on, the first minister moved to clear up further confusion over the issue following comments made by his spokesman during the post-question time media briefing.

Asked whether Mr Gunn's email was "appropriate" - a term contained in the special adviser code of conduct - the spokesman said: "Clearly not."

In a further statement, the first minister said: "As I made clear in the chamber, Campbell Gunn was guilty of a mistake and a misjudgement and has comprehensively apologised for that.

"He was not guilty of disseminating inappropriate material in terms of the special adviser code.

"I have made clear that I expect all special advisers to act appropriately and strictly within the rules of the code at all times."