This is a big deal. The Times says it has had advanced sight of Alex Salmond’s evidence to a Scottish parliament inquiry on sexual harassment and it makes for uncomfortable reading for Nicola Sturgeon. The former SNP leader is allegedly accusing his one-time protege of misleading the Holyrood parliament and contravening the ministerial code. If true, that would be the end of Sturgeon’s premiership.
The inquiry stems from a botched probe into sexual harassment allegations lodged against Salmond relating to his time as Scottish First Minister. Salmond denied the accusations and took the Scottish government to the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court, where Lord Pentland ruled that the investigation into him has been ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted with apparent bias’. Central to the judge’s finding was the admission that the government’s investigator had had prior contact with Salmond’s accusers. Salmond was then tried on criminal charges of sexual assault but was cleared on all counts at the High Court in Edinburgh. It later emerged that during the criminal trial, SNP chief executive (and Sturgeon’s husband) Peter Murrell sent text messages to a senior party figure saying it was a ‘good time to be pressurising’ the police and that ‘the more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers’. However, the Crown Office says ‘there is no evidence that Mr Murrell directly or indirectly brought pressure to bear on Police Scotland in respect of this case’. Some of Salmond’s supporters believe he has been the victim of a political conspiracy.
After the Court of Session judgment, the Scottish parliament established an inquiry into how the government mishandled its investigation into Salmond. Already Sturgeon has provided written evidence and Murrell has appeared before MSPs in person. Each was criticised over their evidence. Sturgeon had previously told parliament that she learned about the government probe into Salmond at a meeting with him at her home in Glasgow on April 2, 2018. In her inquiry evidence, she revealed the existence of a meeting four days earlier, on March 29, with Salmond’s former chief of staff, whom she said informed her that Salmond wanted to meet to discuss ‘allegations of a sexual nature’. Sturgeon maintained her meetings with Salmond were a party matter, and thus not minuted like government appointments, while Murrell insisted they were government business, and therefore did not involve him.
Now, the Times reports, Salmond will give evidence that there ‘was never the slightest doubt’ that his ex-aide met Sturgeon to talk about sexual harassment complaints and set up a direct meeting four days later. Any other version of events, Salmond is reported to say, would be ‘simply untrue’ — and that the March 29 meeting: ‘was “forgotten” about because acknowledging it would have rendered ridiculous the claim made by the First Minister in parliament that it had been believed that the meeting on April 2 was on SNP party business and thus held at her private residence’.
Salmond is said to add: ‘The First Minister’s claim that it was ever thought to be about anything other than the complaints made against me is wholly false.’ His written evidence is also reported to assert that, by Halloween 2018, ‘the government and the First Minister knew of legal advice... that on the balance of probability they would lose the judicial review and be found to have acted unlawfully.’
A spokesman for Sturgeon told the Times she ‘entirely rejected’ Salmond’s accusation that she broke the ministerial code and pointed out that ‘the roots of this issue lie in complaints made by women about Alex Salmond’s behaviour whilst he was First Minister, aspects of which he has conceded’. The spokesman went on to charge Salmond with ‘seeking to malign the reputation of the First Minister’ and ‘spinning false conspiracy theories’.
This saga is long-running and internecine, but this is perhaps the most extraordinary development yet seen. If the newspaper report is accurate, the former SNP First Minister is making accusations against the current SNP First Minister that, were they to be verified, would bring her down both as First Minister and as SNP leader. The mere levelling of these allegations is the stuff that makes mountains tremble. The most successful partnership in modern Scottish politics, the duo that made the SNP an electoral juggernaut, could end up tearing their party in two. Salmond will be questioned by the inquiry on January 19 while Sturgeon will appear on January 26. If their oral evidence is anything like their written submissions, it can only toss more ammunition into the SNP’s growing civil war. This is a very big deal indeed.