If Police Scotland was a TV box-set, would anyone actually believe it?

By Graham Grant

IN a jaunty Twitter exchange, Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick described a funny encounter with a junior officer.

Sergeant Laura Gibson had bumped into her boss and – ‘starstruck’ by the experience – called her ‘mum’, rather ‘ma’am’.

The sergeant tweeted that she feared her career had gone ‘down the pan’, but the senior officer replied that it was the ‘nicest thing anyone has said to me all day’ – adding the hashtag ‘#policefamily’.

Miss Fitzpatrick presented a rather cuddlier portrayal of life at the top of Police Scotland than recent negative publicity might suggest.

Of course, the motherly DCC was mired in financial scandal last month when it emerged the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) had sanctioned a payment of £67,000 to help her move house (and paid her £53,000 tax bill with public money): not a bad deal, ma’am…

Fittingly, her starstruck subordinate had been delivering ‘wellbeing matters kits’ to her superiors.

And they might well be in desperate need of advice on taking care of themselves, given the events of the last few days.

Missing from the ‘executive corridor’ at the single force is Chief Constable Phil Gormley, on gardening leave amid multiple bullying allegations.

Last week there was a twist in the Police Scotland psychodrama that any TV scriptwriter would have rejected as far-fetched, when Mr Gormley’s wife entered the fray.

Retired senior police officer Claire Gormley waded into battle with an extraordinary attack on Justice Secretary Michael Matheson.

For good measure, she added in criticism of two police watchdogs, one of which is charged with probing the bullying claims.

Mr Gormley has been on ‘special leave’ from his £214,000 a year post since last September, but denies all of the accusations and is determined to take the helm of the force once again.

Mr Matheson triggered an ongoing political row after blocking the SPA’s decision in November last year to allow the chief to return to his job.

That may be about to reach a climax on Thursday, when former SPA bosses including ex-chairman Andrew Flanagan (himself forced out after a bullying row) will give evidence to a powerful Holyrood committee.

For his part, Mr Matheson insists he acted lawfully and that he prevented a bigger scandal, because the SPA hadn’t consulted anyone about ending the chief’s gardening leave.

Mr Gormley – who was en route to Scotland from his Norfolk home when he was told to turn back following Mr Matheson’s intervention – would have come back to his desk without any warning for his colleagues, and alleged victims.

The broadside from the chief’s wife brought a Shakespearean flavour to a saga that is already reaching box-set proportions.

She dismisses the claims against her husband – six complaints have been made, two are in the hands of the SPA and four being probed by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) – as a ‘disproportionate fishing expedition’.

Mrs Gormley told the Mail that her husband had not been interviewed by the PIRC, despite the fact that the first of the allegations had been made back in July last year.

The PIRC launched the fourth investigation last week, following a complaint about Mr Gormley’s ‘behaviour’ from Martin Leven, who was off sick with stress last year and is in charge of Police Scotland’s disaster-prone IT strategy.

Mrs Gormley dismissed this latest allegation as a ‘cynical manoeuvre’.

Meanwhile Mr Gormley’s deputy, Iain Livingstone, is in the chief’s chair and enjoys the backing of Mr Matheson, and Professor Susan Deacon, the former Labour minister now chairing the SPA.

With a year to go until the end of his contract, and key relationships with ministers and watchdogs in tatters, many believe there is little realistic prospect of Mr Gormley’s return.

Of course, if he is cleared by the PIRC probes – assuming that there are no more complaints – there may be no legal basis to prevent his return.

Mr Gormley’s lawyer has already threatened legal action against the Scottish Government.

Last week former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth condemned the situation as a ‘farce’ and claimed Mr Matheson had acted unconstitutionally.

He pointed out that even Stalin, unlike Mr Matheson, had kept minutes of important meetings.

One hand grenade after another has been lobbed into a row that has raised fundamental questions about the way that the Scottish Government operates.

Evidence from Mr Flanagan at Holyrood’s public audit committee on Thursday could prove damaging for Mr Matheson, providing another opportunity for a forensic dissection of Gormleygate.

It certainly merits the ‘gate’ suffix usually attached to political rows: squirming ministers, a seething peer, a furious police chief and his incandescent spouse…

But the moral of the story is that the early warnings about the creation of the single force back in April 2013 – particularly the concern that it could lead to political interference – have proved all too prescient.

As Lord Forsyth argued, there can be no justification for ministers getting involved in operational police decisions.

In a case where a supposedly independent body has taken a democratic decision (albeit very ham-fistedly), it should be respected.

Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was cast aside by Nicola Sturgeon principally over the botched launch of Police Scotland, and a series of ensuing controversies – and Mr Matheson may yet meet a similar fate.

Gormleygate can only be resolved by the PIRC – which is now arranging to interview the chief over the bullying claims.

But its decision on the investigations involving the chief is not expected until at least March – a timetable that may be expedited following Mrs Gormley’s criticism of the PIRC.

By coincidence, Thursday, when the Scottish parliament’s public audit committee meets, is also the deadline for renewal of Mr Gormley’s special leave, a decision that lies in the hands of the SPA.

It is hard to see any other option than for the leave to be extended in light of Mr Leven’s complaint.

In the background, a subplot is quietly developing, involving Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins, now the subject of three PIRC investigations, relating to criminal and misconduct allegations.

His lawyer has dismissed these complaints, which include a claim of unauthorised use of firearms at a police firing range, as ‘malicious’. Mr Higgins is the officer in charge of armed policing.

Meanwhile rank-and-file officers are getting on with their day job, many of them profoundly demoralised by the antics of their superiors.

But they have also been let down by politicians who rushed the single force into creation and ignored repeated warnings about the potential pitfalls.

Miss Sturgeon, who was Deputy First Minister when Police Scotland was formed, sealed the fate of Mr Gormley’s autocratic predecessor, Sir Stephen House, in 2015 when she said ‘no Chief Constable should be a law unto themselves’.

Now she has to decide whether the same principle should apply to her Justice Secretary.