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Sheridan: The lies, the plotting, the real conspiracy

Tommy Sheridan’s life changed for ever at a meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party on November 9, 2004. It was there he faced a dilemma: should he confirm or deny that he had visited Cupid’s sex club in Manchester?

The then convener of the SSP gambled by confessing to colleagues, a decision he later rued on tape as "the biggest mistake of my life".

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The emergency meeting had been called after the News of the World tabloid newspaper ran a story about an unnamed MSP attending a swingers’ club with journalist Anvar Khan. But Sheridan did not just confess to his comrades that he was the MSP in question. He also insisted on pursuing the kamikaze strategy of suing the newspaper about the story, despite admitting it was true.

That calamitous decision set in motion a six-year train wreck for everyone who attended the meeting. SSP national spokesman Colin Fox went as far as to describe it as his party’s 9/11.

The torment spanned Sheridan’s successful defamation case against the newspaper in 2006; the ensuing break-up of the SSP; a police investigation into evidence supplied in court; a perjury trial; and Sheridan’s subsequent conviction last Thursday afternoon.

The jury at the perjury trial accepted that Sheridan had attended Cupid’s with Khan; that he had cheated on his wife with party activist Katrine Trolle; and that he had only defeated the News of the World in the defamation case four years ago by telling lies under oath.

The story didn’t have to end this way. Back in November 2004, Sheridan was an effective MSP and a popular figure throughout Scotland. The SSP had six MSPs and was a beacon for socialist organisations across Europe.

After the tabloid published its story, Sheridan could simply have ignored it. The issue would have died. Instead, his chosen path has led to the certainty of a long stretch in prison.

The story of Sheridan’s rise and fall involves two conspiracies, both of which had the aim of protecting his secret double life as an adulterer and swinger. The first of these was dreamed up by Sheridan and used as the basis of his defence against the perjury charges over the past 12 weeks. It centred on the notion that a collection of individuals, encompassing people from many different walks of life, had joined forces to frame him. It was entirely imaginary.

The second conspiracy was that devised by Sheridan to persuade the jury of his innocence. Central to this were 16 members of the Scottish Socialist Party who, he insisted, had falsely claimed in court that he had confessed at the so-called "9/11 meeting" to attending Cupid’s. These 16 individuals, some of whom had known Sheridan for decades, were supposedly so bitter that they would risk their families and careers to perjure themselves. Sheridan argued that one of them, former SSP minutes secretary Barbara Scott, had gone so far as to produce false minutes of the meeting in an attempt to frame him.

Also part of this story were two of the best men at Sheridan’s wedding in 2000: George McNeilage and Keith Baldassara. McNeilage, in a crucial part of the Crown’s defence, was revealed to have secretly taped Sheridan admitting to the Cupid’s confession, and to sex with Trolle. However, as part of his conspiracy strategy, Sheridan claimed the video was a fake and that the words were scripted by another SSP "traitor", Alan McCombes.

A further layer of treachery, according to Sheridan and his acolytes, was provided by a cast of tabloid journalists, private investigators and biased police officers. In Sheridan’s eyes, some of them were guided by the hand of Andy Coulson, formerly the editor of the News of the World and now Prime Minister David Cameron’s head of communications.

As for the random individuals, with no relationship to each other, who were also said to be part of the vast plot to snare a working-class hero: these included Tony and Louise Cumberbirch, who claimed they met Sheridan and his friends at Cupid’s in 2002; Pamela Tucker, who testified that she bumped into Sheridan outside the same club; and Elizabeth Quinn, a 71-year-old retired schoolteacher who said she met the politician when he was in her flat with Anvar Khan.

Then there was journalist Ralph Barnett and his former partner Ruth Adamson, who said Sheridan and Trolle had come to Adamson’s Dundee flat and disappeared upstairs; and Susan Dobbie, who also said she had been in the company of Sheridan and Khan. Even his old schoolfriend Gary Clark was named by Sheridan as being part of the apparent SSP/News of the World/British-state alliance, after he reluctantly confirmed that he and the ex-MSP had visited Cupid’s.

Sheridan staked his freedom on his ability to convince a jury that this eclectic group of people were part of a conspiracy of left and right, geared towards bringing down the former leader of a party that, in its heyday, polled around 6% of the vote in Scotland.

Brett Harper, a social worker and one of Sheridan’s defence witnesses, used his day in court to outline a fantastical version of this theory. "Tommy Sheridan and the far left have been set up by the state," he claimed. "He is seen as someone who brought down the Poll Tax."

For Harper’s logic to be accurate, the UK State would have to be a very patient beast. It was only after Sheridan lost his seat as an MSP in 2007 that the State would decide to pounce on him for protesting against a previous Government’s policy nearly 20 years earlier.

Still, Sheridan’s conspiracy theory was flexible enough to allow for screeching U-turns. He first said the McNeilage video did contain his voice, albeit a spliced version, but then insisted the recording was the sound of an actor. Sheridan also claimed that no minutes existed of the November 2004 meeting which ended his political career, before then arguing in court that the minutes which were taken were bogus.

There were, however, several problems with Sheridan’s giant conspiracy theory: phone records, his diary (which had "Cupid’ written in it), and a volume of testimony from former lovers and friends. The more chilling story, however, is the real conspiracy Sheridan and his supporters hatched between November 2004 and the perjury trial.

On the eve of his defamation battle against the News of the World in 2006, a motion passed by the Cardonald branch of the SSP called for the crucial "9/11 minute" to be disposed of. It stated: "This branch demands that any such record or minutes involving Comrade Sheridan and his private life … should be immediately destroyed." The branch included Sheridan and his wife Gail as members, and the motion was circulated from Sheridan’s Holyrood e-mail account.

In another twist before the first trial four years ago, a document that was said to be the "real" minutes mysteriously emerged. The bogus record was grammatically poor and unlike any other SSP minutes, but it was nonetheless used by Sheridan’s champions to query the veracity of the other document.

Minutes of another SSP meeting, held days before the defamation case, showed that Sheridan’s sister Lynn voted against the following motion: "In response to direct questions in court, those cited should not lie or commit contempt of court." And key witness Helen Allison told the court that, before the first trial, a man called John Lynn, who had previously been jailed for attempted murder, asked her not to give evidence. Allison -- who told the trial that she saw the politician at a sex party -- claimed Lynn said this while he was sitting in the same bar as a key Sheridan ally.

Sheridan used the defamation and perjury trials to peddle the lie that the 16 SSP members’ testimony could be explained by political splits. In fact, although the SSP was a collection of far-left groups united under one umbrella, the party was effectively dominated by ex-Militant members such as Sheridan and McCombes who agreed on pretty much everything. The pair fell out not over policy but over Sheridan’s insistence on suing a newspaper about an allegation he said was true.

The final plank of his six-year deceit was perhaps his darkest hour: the emotional manipulation of friends, family and jurors. His determination to fight the truth resulted in years of torment for his wife -- who was also charged with perjury but acquitted -- and his daughter Gabrielle. He even used his mother’s cancer as a weapon in the battle to deceive the jury.

Sheridan’s decision to sue in the first place meant he had to create a conspiracy to win the case, while his decision to fight the perjury charge meant he had to deepen the plot.

It was left to George McNeilage to explain why Sheridan pursued the legal action against the Murdoch red-top in the first place. During the perjury trial, the former best man quoted Sheridan as saying in November 2004: "If I do that [drop the case] the floodgates will open. I have to take this to court’."

It appears the dam may now be bursting. Not only did Sheridan lie about his infidelities with Trolle, but a newspaper yesterday reported an alleged threesome involving Nottingham Forest football manager Billy Davies -- which Davies strenuously denies. The News of the World is also expected to run a raft of further stories about Sheridan cheating on his wife.

Put simply, he sued to keep details of his secret double life away from his wife and mother. Apart from self-destruction, the legacy of his actions has been the annihilation of the non-Labour Scottish left -- and the creation of the Sheridan Cult.

Last Thursday’s verdict, far from being the latest chapter in Sheridan’s fight against the establishment, was the moment when his tower of lies came crashing down on his head.   Sometimes charisma isn't enough

By Alan Taylor

There is an old legal adage: the man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. Whatever Tommy Sheridan is, he is no fool. When he decided mid-trial to take on his own defence, he was adopting a role for which he has, in a sense, been rehearsing all his life. Eloquent, articulate, persistent, trenchant, precise, implacably convinced of his own innocence, he was the very model of a lawyer in one of those classic courtroom movies such as 12 Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird, of which he is so avid a fan.

Dressed invariably in a sober suit, white shirt and red or blue tie, and speaking from the dock which he shared for so long with his wife Gail, Sheridan -- who had spent just one year as a law student -- proved a formidable and dogged advocate. Unlike his adversary, the soft-spoken, bespectacled advocate-depute Alex Prentice, a member of the Edinburgh legal establishment, Sheridan’s knowledge of legal matters is that of a comparative novice.

It could be argued this was to his advantage. He was a one-man band against a well-oiled, heavily resourced orchestra. Every day, after Lord Bracadale, the trial judge, called a halt to proceedings around 4pm, he would go home and prepare for the next chapter in a story that unfolded at the pace of a whodunit. More often than not he would be assisted by Aamer Anwar, his solicitor. While his wife prepared an evening meal, Sheridan covered the kitchen table in papers. When she went to bed, he stayed up into the wee small hours. Sometimes he never went to bed at all.

The strain on the couple was obvious. Glasgow’s High Court became a magnet for those -- the insatiably curious, the time-rich, anyone with a book or play or TV programme in the pipeline -- who are not so much interested in justice as in drama. When there was an adjournment, Mr Sheridan and his wife, surrounded by family and supporters, stood in the concourse, like theatre-goers at the interval. His mother, Alice, was ever-present, meeting and greeting well-wishers as they queued for a seat in the public gallery. A couple of days before the verdict was delivered, a family friend handed her an envelope. "It’ll be a cheque from the News of the World," offered a wag. It was a Christmas card.

Any celebration of Christmas, though, was put on hold. Gail Sheridan, who must have as many outfits as Imelda Marcos had shoes, said that in the days leading up to the trial she would find herself in a supermarket looking at sell-by dates and realise that was when she’d be sitting in the dock. After the case against her was dropped, 11 weeks into the trial, when Prentice acknowledged that it was "not in the public interest to proceed", she sat in the public gallery -- which, she joked, was not as convenient because there wasn’t enough space to stow her bags.

Her laughter, however, was nervous and unnatural. She might have been free but her husband was not. As the trial wound down and its denouement approached, Sheridan stood alone and dependent on the 12 women and two men of the jury -- one female juror having been excused -- who would decide his fate.

Some days, he said, he thought he detected a feeling of warmth from them to him. On others he was worried he was boring them, especially when discussing machinations inside the Scottish Socialist Party, whom he accused of conducting a "political civil war".

These matters might have ended after Sheridan’s defamation action against the News of the World. On August 4, 2006, the jury in that original trial, by a majority of seven to four, found in his favour and he was awarded damages of £200,000.

But in the aftermath of that trial, new evidence came to light which persuaded the procurator-fiscal there were grounds for an investigation. Sheridan was subsequently charged with perjury on December 16, 2007, and the full trial began on October 4 this year.

Over the weeks that followed, the pendulum swung back and forth. In the early stages of a trial, when the Crown is presenting its case, it is inevitable that the accused is on the back foot. Of course, Sheridan had an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses for the Crown -- but the story, at least as it was often discussed outside the court, was of a man who was a consummate liar, who believed that he was the bee’s knees, and who had an ego the size of the SECC.

Prentice, unlike Sheridan, was not personally involved in the events that were central to the charges. Thus the prosecutor had the virtues of distance and of apparent impartiality. He was an honest broker. His job, he said -- as if addressing a school assembly -- was to act on behalf of the public, and to ask the questions that needed to be asked in order to establish the truth. Were he a boxer, he’d be a jabber, pummelling his opponent with punches that wouldn’t sucker or knock him insensate but that would wear him down.

Meanwhile, Sheridan slugged away. One by one, charges were dropped. By the time the judge sent the jury out, just six of the original 19 charges remained.

Numerous members of the SSP -- including Colin Fox, who succeeded Sheridan as its convener; Keith Baldassara; Alan McCombes; Barbara Scott; Carolyn Leckie; Frances Curran and Rosie Kane -- testified that Sheridan had confessed to visiting Cupid’s sex club in Manchester at the meeting of November 9, 2004. It was suggested that, when Sheridan made the admission, "you could have heard a pin drop" -- a phrase Prentice used to begin his closing speech.

Fundamental to the Crown’s case in the perjury trial was a set of minutes from the November 2004 meeting. These minutes, which had not been presented during the 2006 defamation trial, recorded Sheridan admitting to visiting the Manchester sex club. In response, Sheridan called several witnesses who swore blind that no such minutes had ever been presented to them. What the jury made of all of this was hard to gauge. It is the way of the far left. "Sadly," remarked Sheridan, shaking his head in frustration, "we fight a lot, and sometimes those fights get bitter."

Never in modern Scottish political history, however, has there been a fight as bitter as this. While Sheridan argued that his accusers ought to have been in the dock alongside him, they insisted he was a fantasist who had betrayed the socialist cause. So disillusioned were they that they were prepared to throw in their lot with the News of the World and its parent organisation, News Corporation -- something which hitherto would have been unthinkable.

None was more disillusioned than George McNeilage, who was Sheridan’s best man when he married Gail in 2000 and who subsequently made the secret recording that would prove instrumental in his former friend’s downfall. He told the court he made it because he was incensed by an interview Sheridan had given to a newspaper, in which he called those who had given evidence against him in 2006 "scabs".

The video, said McNeilage, was made in a council flat in the Pollok area of Glasgow that he was renovating. Initially, he said he’d been "asked" to make the tape -- but, when questioned by Prentice, said this was untrue and that he had acted on his own.

He contacted Bob Bird, the editor of the Scottish edition of the News of the World -- who told the court that, when he arrived at a meeting to view the video, he was greeted by McNeilage who did not say anything but held up a sign instructing him to get undressed. Normally, in such circumstances, journalists make their excuses and leave. Not Bird. He undressed to his boxer shorts -- in order to show he was not wearing a wire -- and was rewarded with what he believed to be a video of Sheridan ranting about his former friends in the SSP and confessing in succulent detail to all the allegations he’d previously so vociferously denied.

For this, McNeilage asked for £250,000 and received £200,000. It was, Bird believed, compelling evidence that Sheridan had been lying all along, and he made it his paper’s front-page splash one Sunday in October 2006. The same view was taken by Prentice, who showed the video twice in its entirety of around three-quarters of an hour. Both prosecution and defence called witnesses who testified hand on heart that it was either accurate or bogus. What no-one disputed was that it was impossible to identify Mr Sheridan visually in it.

It was yet another contentious chapter in a case full of them. What cannot be denied, however, is that Sheridan lost -- and now faces jail when he returns to court on January 26. His closing speech lasted five hours. Was it too long and too emotionally charged? Perhaps. Ought he to have retained the services of Donald Findlay QC? Who knows. Did he try the patience of the jury? Perhaps. But he had, as he said himself, much ground to cover, a lot of accusations to try to refute, many enemies to face down, countless contradictory details to address. Outside the High Court, as his wife reaffirmed her loyalty to him, Tommy Sheridan was finally, glumly silent, all his formidable powers of persuasion having come to nothing.





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