NEITHER side of the Alistair Carmichael election case expected Lady Paton to say: “We wish to hear evidence.” Roddy Dunlop QC, for the former Secretary of State, thought the Election Court could decide the matter on the law alone without a breath of further evidence being heard.

Did Carmichael make a false statement of fact about this personal character and conduct, or was his fibbing “only political”? Did he lie in order to better secure his own prospects of re-election in a tight Northern Isles race, or to stick it to a nationally insurgent SNP? Jonathan Mitchell QC, for the four petitioners, agreed with his opposite number. The Election Court, he argued, should be able to make up its mind on the admitted facts.

But Lady Paton and Lord Matthews had different ideas. They wanted fully to enquire into the facts of the case before answering these tricky legal questions. They wanted to hear from Carmichael before deciding his fate. Lights, camera, court. It was this shock ruling which gave Parliament House its slightly unreal air yesterday as Lady Paton and Lord Matthews began to hear evidence.

In formulating their cases, neither side had anticipated calling a parade of witnesses. Those to be called make for an unlikely crew, speaking as much to the political context of the 2015 General Election poll in Orkney and Shetland as to what Carmichael did or did not do.

Carmichael had hoped that the petition would fall at the first legal hurdle, hoping a conservative interpretation of the 1983 Representation of the People Act would save him. Instead, he found himself facing the prospect of a critical and searching examination on how and why he lied. He put a brave face on it yesterday, bouncing cheerfully into the Court of Session as the rain fell. But for all the hollow smiles, this was a grim, undignified day for him.

Disappointed petitioner Fiona Grahame testified to her disillusionment with her MP. She spoke of her surprise to discover that Carmichael – who she had always taken for an honest, industrious man – had indulged in the low politician’s wiles of perfidy and outright dishonesty. A cantankerous Tavish Scott, MSP for Shetland, was summoned and sworn, explaining his own disappointment in his Liberal Democrat colleague, but hitting out at the procedure as a “political show trial”. Even the ubiquitous pollster Professor John Curtice is due to contribute his tuppence worth.

The afternoon brought Carmichael himself to the stand, to account for his conduct. Giving evidence in court is an uncomfortable experience at the best of times. All eyes are upon you. You must answer the questions put to you. You cannot prevaricate, or equivocate. Questions can’t be dodged. Soundbites won’t save you. All your long-honed political skills become redundant. For an honest witness, particularly an honest witness with an unflattering story to relate, the only solution is frankness, self-deprecation, and above all – keeping the heid.

Unlike Tavish Scott, reports suggest that Carmichael broadly achieved this yesterday. Whether or not the Election Court relieves him of his seat remains an open question.

The deck still seems balanced in favour of his survival. But make no mistake: this is no “show trial”, no sham process whose outcome is already decided, but a trial of the evidence before two experienced judges, applying a difficult and politically-sensitive Act of Parliament to a unique set of circumstances.

Tavish Scott criticises litigation, disturbed by the political turn of the questions he was asked on the stand. I’m sure this was an unpleasant, even embarrassing, experience. But it was Parliament that invested judges with responsibility for deciding on election petitions.

It was Parliament that determined those who make false statements about the personal character and conduct of a candidate should face stiff penalties. And it was Carmichael who decided to be less than honest with his constituents and the wider public about his involvement in the leak. Cool your jets. Let justice be done. And let Lord Matthews and Lady Paton get on with their jobs.

The case continues.

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The National View: A historic day in court