At First Minister’s Questions this afternoon Nicola Sturgeon accused Ruth Davidson of peddling baseless conspiracy theories, dredged up from 'the bottom of the barrel'. For all that Davidson, like the rest of Sturgeon’s political opponents, might profess that their interest in the Salmond-Sturgeon affair rests on nothing more than ‘just the facts, ma’am’, the First Minister was clear their concern is primarily opportunistic and political. If they wished to pal around with Alex Salmond and his cronies in some kind of 'old boys club' that was their prerogative, but the people of Scotland will deliver their verdict in May’s elections.
And there is, of course, some truth in that charge. The Salmond affair is the opposition’s last, best, chance of damaging Sturgeon, and by extension, the SNP before the election on 6 May. Like many other observers, I am shocked to discover politics taking place.
Tonight, Sky News’s James Matthews — a well-connected and much-respected reporter — broke the news that the committee investigating the Scottish government’s hapless handling of the initial complaints made against Salmond has concluded that Sturgeon 'misled' the committee when offering her account of what happened during this affair and her role in those happenings. Some barrels need dredging.
Crucially, however, the committee is — reportedly at least — not prepared to advance the proposition that the First Minister misled them knowingly. The difference between an unwittingly incomplete account and a knowingly inadequate one may seem arcane but it is the difference between an offence that is embarrassing but survivable and one that is traditionally considered a resignation matter. And so the difference matters.
It is suggested that Sturgeon gave an 'inaccurate' account of a meeting she had with her predecessor when, she says, she first discovered the complaints made against Salmond and her government’s investigation of them. This was on 2 April 2018, almost three months after the formal investigation began and more than four months after the first whispers of 'concerns' about Salmond’s conduct were raised by civil servants with their superiors.
This inaccurate account, the committee suggests, amounts to a 'potential' breach of the ministerial code, a charter that has never previously assumed such prominence in Scottish public life or been considered a consecrated document that may never, in any circumstances, be blasphemed against.
Be that as it may, the committee appears to have concluded that Sturgeon has a case to answer. For although its investigation notionally centred on the government’s development, application, and mishandling of what was, in the end, a human resources problem, it’s true target has always lain elsewhere. For what Sturgeon knew, and when she knew it, has been one of two key questions and, of the two, the one that has become the most significant. (The other vital question was just how the government came to make such a hash of its own investigation procedure but few people seem as exercised about this.)
Throughout, Sturgeon has accepted that the government’s mistakes were serious though today she once again asked for a plea of mitigation to be taken into account. As she put it:
“A point that should not be lost is that it is a mistake that was made in the course of the government trying to do the right thing. In the world of the old boys club, that mistake would never have been made because the allegations would never have been investigated and would have been swept under the carpet instead.
Perhaps so but however much sympathy one might have for this perspective, governments are judged on outcomes, not intentions. And however much one can understand the personal predicament in which Sturgeon found herself once such serious allegations were made against her former mentor, it remains the case that few people whose livelihoods or promotion prospects do not depend on doing so actually believe she has given a full and candid account of the matter.
Ample evidence suggests she knew of the investigation some days prior to the now-famous meeting with Salmond. One need not share or even indulge Salmond’s broader allegation that the rule of law has broken down in Scotland to think the first minister’s account, literally, incredible.
As might be expected, the committee is reported to be split along party lines. Its four SNP members are in the minority and the Green-turned-independent MSP Andy Wightman has, in effect, long held the casting vote. In that sense, the committee’s conclusions are those of one man only. But Wightman has a reputation, deservedly, for being one of the more independent and principled members of the Holyrood legislature.
Even so, the report's criticism of Sturgeon appears stronger than most observers anticipated would be likely, but it would of course be premature to offer too certain a conclusion in advance of the report’s actual publication.
And while Sturgeon’s loyalists — perhaps 80 per cent of the nationalist movement — may deride this as a politically-motivated hatchet job, there is no easy way of squaring the First Minister’s testimony with evidence given under oath in court and in subsequent affidavits presented to the committee.
Worse still, at least from Sturgeon’s perspective, is the looming arrival and publication of a separate investigation into whether she broke the ministerial code. That probe — to use a much-loved term — is being conducted by James Hamilton, formerly director of public prosecutions in the Republic of Ireland and now a one-man Star Chamber on the ministerial code. It has long been assumed that his report posed a greater threat to Sturgeon’s position than anything the Holyrood committee might come up with.
This being the case, if the Holyrood committee finds that Sturgeon misled parliament, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion Hamilton may find likewise. At the very least, the odds on him doing so may have shortened.
His report, like the committee’s full findings, is not yet available and a conclusive judgement might best be left until it is.
Nevertheless, any interim conclusion is likely to suggest that Sturgeon’s position is wobblier than either she, or her supporters, might care to contemplate. Much will hinge on the small print — the terms and conditions of parliamentary standards and procedure — and much will hang on the verdict rendered by the court of public opinion too. Hitherto voters have taken the view that while they are not persuaded Sturgeon has told the truth, they are fairly certain Salmond has not.
Her survival, then, is likely to be a matter of politics, not ethics. To that end, it may prove helpful that Holyrood rises for its pre-election recess on 25 March. That is next Thursday and the days between now and then may yet prove to be some of the more consequential days in the history of the Scottish parliament.