‘YOU’RE assuring the court this is nothing to do with protecting your reputation?” In Parliament House yesterday, the critical issue in the Carmichael case came back into focus. The election court must decide whether Carmichael’s lies were “only political”, or whether they related to his “personal character and conduct”.

Did he fib about his involvement in the leak to protect his reputation for probity in Orkney and Shetland? Or did he lie to keep the political focus on Nicola Sturgeon, and to put the boot in to the SNP nationally? Or both?

Questioned yesterday by Jonathan Mitchell QC, the former Secretary of State offered a predictable response: “The question of my reputation was not the consideration that we had.” Any falsehoods he peddled were “about keeping the focus on the political story, the purpose of the leak in the first place”. And, perhaps, to save his luckless special adviser, Euan Roddin, from the discomfort of press scrutiny during the febrile atmosphere of a General Election campaign.

On Carmichael’s account, his lies were the product of a heady combination of self-sacrifice and low political cunning. Fidelity to the truth didn’t really come into it. But nor, Carmichael insists, did calculations about his personal reputation. When authorising the leak, any lying about leaking, the reaction of the electors of Orkney and Shetland were a million miles from his thoughts. Well, mibbe.

Carmichael’s emphasis on the political calculations behind his bungling Francis Urquhart impression should surprise no one. An idiot’s guide to election law: if you lie about your personal character and conduct, you lose your seat. If you lie about your political conduct? Well, that’s another matter entirely. In a single bound, you’re free.

In his testimony, the LibDem MP was always likely to emphasise his political motives, and to downplay any local difficulty in the Northern Isles which public knowledge of his political mischief might have provoked. So it proved. It is for Lady Paton and Lord Matthews to determine whether this explanation is cynical and self-serving, or a credible account of the MP’s actions and motivations.

But Carmichael seems to have played this awkward appearance fairly cannily. He has not tried to seem a saint, where the record clearly shows him playing the devil. He made damaging admissions about this propensity for dishonesty. He admitted that his attitude towards the Cabinet Office leak inquiry was “calculated and intended to mislead”. From such fragments, shattered reputations cannot be reassembled. But far better to appear like a repenting sinner in court, than a bullish, narky and unrepentant sinner.

Admissions of dishonesty are always damaging. Admitting to a “catalogue of untruths”, doubly so. They dent your credibility. Make you look shabby.

Mitchell pounced on this yesterday. “You made false statements in relation to your personal character and conduct: why should we expect the court at this stage to accept anything you say?” It is a good question. But far better to be a witness, holding your hands up to a lie, than doubling down on a falsehood in the face of hostile cross-examination.

For Carmichael, the ordeal is now over, his evidence sketchily reported, his court appearance wasn’t televised. He cannot come out of this process well. Whether or not he has breached section 106 of the Representation of the People Act, he has been revealed as a bungling Machiavelli, with an ill will and no real talent for political dirty tricks.

But he can take some heart: his evidence yesterday could have gone a whole lot worse.

Alistair Carmichael says he did not lie to protect his name