As flood of failures rises around Kenny MacAskill, surely tide must turn against him

Justice minister just isn’t up to job, as latest mess over corroboration shows

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THERE comes a time in the career of every minister when they can see, as plain as a pikestaff, that they’re in the brown stuff. Generally speaking, that time comes when their boss takes it upon himself — it is normally a “him” nowadays — to launch a resolute defence of the minister who’s under fire.
That’s what is happening, notwithstanding an emergency eye operation, with Owen Paterson, the English environment minister, with regard to the appalling scenes on the Somerset Levels and of which David Cameron now seems to be in charge.
In Scotland, Kenny MacAskill, the justice minister, has had something of a charmed life in this regard. He’s been under fire over proposals for the minimum pricing of alcohol, over the freeing of the Lockerbie bomber and, now, over his plan to abolish corroboration as one of the main tenets of Scottish law.
On the first he was making such a Horlicks of selling the plan that the policy had to be taken off him and given to the much more sure-footed Nicola Sturgeon. On the second, it was such an international controversy that Alex Salmond had to eventually take the lead. But in relation to the third, we appear to be back to the first problem – namely that Mr MacAskill just ain’t up to the job.
I shan’t rehearse the arguments in relation to minimum pricing or the Lockerbie bomber at this stage but on the issue of the plan to scrap the ages-old corroboration rule of Scots Law, it is very difficult to disagree with the verdict of Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat leader, that the whole thing is a “shambles” and that the justice minister is entirely responsible for this state of affairs.
That’s a pretty devastating place for any minister to be, even more so when Holyrood yesterday listened to First Minister Alex Salmond attempt to use his oratorical skills, as well as the influence of his office, to rescue a policy about which even SNP backbenchers have signalled their deep unease.
For the first time since the Nats took power, a Holyrood committee with a notional nationalist majority has said that it wasn’t happy with the MacAskill plan.
Mr Salmond’s advisers have been in almost constant session this week to try to find a way out of this situation but yesterday the SNP leader had little option but to get a grip of the thing himself.
He was waylaid in exemplary fashion by Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader, and by Mr Rennie, over what the justice minister reckons is a compromise proposal – namely to scrap corroboration but to have a senior judge, Lord Bonomy, make sure there are no miscarriages of justice.
Ms Davidson said MSPs were being asked to vote through a Bill “that we know to be deeply flawed on the ground (but) that Kenny MacAskill has said he will sort it out later”. Instead, she said Lord Bonomy should look at the whole issue again – corroboration included. Mr Rennie, however, went much further, insisting that Mr Salmond should overrule his justice minister and that Mr MacAskill’s approach had been “cack-handed”, adding: “The First Minister gives soothing words … but he knows this is a shambles.” Mr Salmond did indeed offer soothing words, more soothing in fact than Mr MacAskill – who doesn’t really go in for “soothing” – has ever offered.
Having talked to many MSPs I reckon that there is a very fair chance, that if Mr Salmond had intervened sooner and offered the Bonomy compromise earlier, this serious problem for his government might not have arisen.
After all, Alison McInnes for the Lib Dems, Margaret Mitchell for the Tories and Christine Grahame of the SNP have been running rings around the minister on this issue for weeks now. The last named, with a little help from her friends, even managed to orchestrate the first ever critical report by a Holyrood committee of anything that the SNP government has ever done.
The First Minister explained what he believed was the kernel of the case, namely that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people could not get justice – especially in cases of sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse – because of the corroboration.
A politician of his standing should know, however, that in a parliamentary democracy it is often down to not just the essence of the policy but how that policy is “sold”.
As a result, I wouldn’t put much money on Mr MacAskill’s advancement in government.

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