AS its fifth anniversary looms, Scotland’s single police force remains in the headlines for the wrong reasons. The saga of Police Scotland and its dysfunctional oversight body, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), is a long and tangled one.

But let’s just say that rarely has a reform dedicated to justice been so dogged by incompetence.

This week at Holyrood has been dominated by yet another row, but one with unusually high stakes.

In recent months, the SPA chair and chief executive have left under a cloud, and Chief Constable Phil Gormley has taken special leave while the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) looks into three complaints of bullying and misconduct against him.

What elevated the latest ding-dong to a political event is that it involved Michael Matheson. The normally colourless, almost subterranean, Justice Secretary was accused of acting unlawfully. The charge came from Mr Gormley’s lawyer, who told MSPs his client suffered when Mr Matheson intervened in an SPA decision to let him to return to duty.

To recap, the SPA board agreed unanimously on November 7 to let Mr Gormley come back, confirmed it to him in writing the next day, and on November 9, Mr Gormley set off from his home in Norfolk in the expectation of being back at his desk at 8 o’clock the following morning. Only it didn’t work out that way.

As Mr Gormley was en route, then SPA chair Andrew Flanagan asked for a quick word with Mr Matheson. Much to the Justice Secretary’s surprise, Mr Flanagan told him the Chief Constable had been reinstated, despite the ongoing bullying investigation. Mr Matheson had his doubts – and a barrelful of questions. Did the Pirc know? No. Were there arrangements to safeguard the welfare of the staff who had complained about their boss? Er, not sure. Had the SPA even told Mr Gormley’s stand-in, deputy chief constable Iain Livingstone, what was going on? Oops.

Mr Matheson told Mr Flanagan he didn’t think much of that, and asked the SPA to think again.

This is where the legal argument kicks in. The SPA is supposed to be autonomous. Ministers set its budget and its strategic priorities, but the SPA makes its own day-to-day operational decisions, for good or ill.

The SPA appoints the Chief Constable, and ministers approve that appointment, but ministers don’t do anything else in relation to the Chief Constable, like opine on whether they should return from special leave, for example.

For me, both sides were in the wrong. One technically, one manifestly. One was also morally and practically in the right.

Defending his action at Holyrood, Mr Matheson insisted he’d been driven by concerns over governance, in how the decision on Mr Gormley was made, not the decision itself.

This smells like sophistry. Mr Matheson said the SPA’s decision-making process had “clear deficiences”. Not telling the Pirc and other “key players” was “completely unacceptable”, he told MSPs.

Presumably he conveyed the same message to Mr Flanagan. Mr Matheson says he merely asked him to “reconsider”. But when a cabinet secretary tells the chair of a public body they have no confidence in a decision, it’s not a humble request for a rethink, it’s effectively an order.

However the SPA’s action was far worse. It was clearly a rotten call to rush the Chief Constable back to work without telling those around him or checking with the Pirc if it would be a problem. It later emerged the watchdog would have objected.

The chronology also deserves a closer look. Appointed SPA chair for four years in 2015, Mr Flanagan gave notice in mid-2017 that he would be resigning early, after MSPs rated his tenure a disaster.

His biggest legacy was the appointment of Mr Gormley, and the November 7 meeting was his final chance to assist his return.

The suspicion among police officers and MSPs is that Mr Flanagan tried to reinstall his mate before he went, and presented it to Mr Matheson as a fait accompli.

It would be naive to think Mr Matheson didn’t apply pressure to the SPA. But it’s also naive to think he shouldn’t have. In the real world, the buck stops with the politicians. That’s what we expect of them.

It is also true that the original sin lies with the SNP Government, who merged eight regional forces despite warnings it could politicise policing.

But fixing that would take years. In the short-term, Mr Matheson had to confront a flawed SPA decision.

If he had done nothing, stroked his chin and muttered ‘That’s a rum move’ and let it slide, he would have been complicit in it and rightly damned for passivity and neglect.

Later this month Mr Flanagan will give his side of the story to MSPs. His recollection may chime with Mr Matheson’s or it may differ, but it’s unlikely to matter. He has no friends at court. Many MSPs regard the SPA under him as one step away from clown college.

So unless Mr Flanagan has a tape of Mr Matheson chewing the furniture, it’s hard to see the Justice Secretary falling because of his testimony. The opposition would love to see the SNP lose a big scalp, but in their hearts they know the SPA were duffers, and any decent minister would have done the same.