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Inquiry into memo leak ordered

Whitehall's most senior civil servant has ordered an inquiry into the leak of a UK Government account of a private meeting between Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and the French ambassador.

The First Minister demanded the leak inquiry as she angrily denied claims that she told ambassador Sylvie Bermann that she would prefer to see Conservatives remain in power after the May 7 General Election.

Ed Miliband said the document amounted to a "damning revelation" of the SNP leader's true views, which demonstrated that Scottish voters who want to remove the Tories should back Labour rather than the nationalists.

But the Labour leader declined to rule out a post-election arrangement with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament, prompting David Cameron to warn voters that they faced a "coalition of chaos" between Mr Miliband and the SNP's ex-leader Alex Salmond, who is hoping to return to Westminster as MP for Gordon.

The leaked memo was written by a Scotland Office civil servant following a conversation with consul-general Pierre-Alain Coffinier regarding the meeting between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Bermann, who was on her first visit to Scotland in February.

According to a copy published on the Daily Telegraph website, it said: "Discussion appears to have focused mainly on the political situation, with the FM stating that she wouldn't want a formal coalition with Labour; that the SNP would almost certainly have a large number of seats ... that she'd rather see David Cameron remain as PM."

The note went on to say that Ms Sturgeon had said she did not think Labour leader Ed Miliband was "prime minister material".

However the civil servant appeared to doubt whether the report accurately conveyed Ms Sturgeon's comments, adding: "I have to admit that I'm not sure that the FM's tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that, so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation."

Ms Sturgeon described the allegation as "100% untrue" and said she had written to Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood to demand a Whitehall probe into how the newspaper obtained the document.

Sir Jeremy later responded: "You have asked me to investigate issues relating to the apparent leak of a Scotland Office memo that forms the basis of this morning's Daily Telegraph story.

" I can confirm that earlier today I instigated a Cabinet Office-led leak inquiry to establish how extracts from this document may have got into the public domain. Until that inquiry is complete I will not be making any further comment either on the document or the inquiry."

Sir Jeremy is thought to be particularly concerned at the allegation of a leak because of the sensitivity of its timing, during one of the most finely balanced general elections of modern times.

It came at a time when polls suggest that the SNP is on track to seize dozens of Labour seats north of the border, and Ms Sturgeon's personal popularity is soaring in the wake of a well-received performance in this week's televised leaders' debate.

She said the story was a sign of "panic" in Westminster over the surge in support for the nationalist party, and issued a challenge to Labour leader Ed Miliband to state publicly that he would work with the SNP to "lock out" David Cameron from Downing Street in the event of a hung Parliament.

Attending an anti-nuclear rally in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon said: "Anyone who knows anything about me knows I don't want to see a Conservative government. I'm campaigning to get the Tories out of Downing Street. We've made if very clear that we will lock David Cameron out of Downing Street - the only person who's not made that clear is Ed Miliband.

"We've said that if there are more SNP and Labour MPs than there are Tory MPs, then we will vote to stop a Tory government even getting off the ground. I reissue my challenge to Ed Miliband today to say likewise."

She said the leak suggested "a Whitehall system out of control - a place where political dirty tricks are manufactured and leaked". She said she would be happy for a minute of the meeting to be published.

Mr Coffinier - who was present at the meeting - confirmed that he had talked "in broad terms" to the UK Government's Scotland Office about the ambassador's visit, but denied saying that Ms Sturgeon had expressed a preference about the election outcome and said he could not recall any casual comment which could have been interpreted in this way.

"I didn't say that," the consul-general told Sky News. "I do not know where this comes from, because it is certainly not in my report that anyone gave any preference."

Mr Coffinier said Ms Bermann's conversation with Ms Sturgeon was conducted in English. He added: "They discussed the political situation, which is normal, but at no stage did anyone make any comment on their preference regarding the outcome of the election."

A spokesman for Ms Bermann said in a statement: "While the Ambassador and First Minister, some time ago, discussed the political situation, Ms Sturgeon did not touch on her personal political preferences with regards to the future prime minister."

Mr Miliband said: "I think these are damning revelations. What it shows is that while in public the SNP are saying they don't want to see a Conservative government, in private they are actually saying they do want a Conservative government. It shows that the answer at this General Election is if you want the Conservatives out, the only answer is to vote Labour for a Labour government.

The Labour leader again ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP, but declined to comment on a looser agreement to co-operate if the election result is inconclusive.

"I'm very clear that there won't be a coalition with the SNP. That's not going to happen," said Mr Miliband. But asked if he could countenance a post-election deal under which the SNP might prop up a minority Labour government on a vote-by-vote or "supply and confidence" basis, he replied "What I'm saying very clearly is we are not going to have a coalition with the SNP. As for other post-election possibilities, I'm not getting into that."

Campaigning in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, Mr Cameron warned of a "coalition of chaos" if Labour and the SNP attempted to govern together.

Mr Cameron told Tory activists: "There is this coalition of chaos alliance we could end up with if we are not careful - an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain - Labour - and the people who want to break up Britain - the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. That's what we have got to avoid."

A Conservative spokesman said: "Ed Miliband still won't rule out a deal with the SNP because he knows he can't get into Number 10 without them - he's in the pocket of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon has him on a leash.

"And we know what's in the ransom note: £148 billion more wasteful borrowing, higher taxes on ordinary families, weaker defences and more debt than our children could ever hope to repay."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "The First Minister might deny reports of her tete-a-tete with the French but we all know a Conservative-only government is the result of this election that the SNP want to see. A Tory PM governing alone in Downing Street and veering to the right fuels nationalist fires back home.

"Despite her fluffy, positive words about working with the rest of the UK we know what she really thinks. Her sole ambition is to break up the UK."

Nigel Farage, campaigning in the Thanet South seat which he is contesting for Ukip, told Sky News: "The SNP want to break up Britain. The way they see it, if the Tories are strong - given the level of toxification of the Tory brand in Scotland - that will help them. I guess that's what it's about."

The row over SNP intentions overshadowed the first Saturday of the election campaign, which also saw Labour unveil a plan to build 125,000 homes using £5 billion invested in new tax-free savings accounts for first-time-buyers, while Tories announced a pledge to stop children accessing pornography websites and Liberal Democrats set out proposals for a £2.5 billion fund to keep people out of hospital.


From Belfast Telegraph