James Hamilton’s inquiry has found that Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code. The former Irish prosecutor, who serves as the independent adviser on the code, was tasked with reviewing the Holyrood First Minister’s actions in relation to the Alex Salmond affair.
Hamilton considered four allegations:
That Sturgeon’s failure to record meetings and phone conversations with Alex Salmond and others (held between March 29 and July 18, 2018) breached the code’s provisions that ‘meetings on official business should normally be arranged through Private Offices’ and ‘a private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to government business’. Further, that ‘if ministers meet external organisations or individuals and find themselves discussing official business without an official present… any significant content… should be passed back to their Private Offices as soon as possible after the event, who should arrange for the basic facts of such meetings to be recorded’. Salmond and Sturgeon discussed the Scottish Government investigation into the former first minister at Sturgeon’s private home with no civil servant present and no civil servant told about the discussion until two months later. Hamilton concludes that this did not amount to a breach of the code.
That Sturgeon may have tried to influence the investigation into Salmond. Salmond testified that Sturgeon had offered to intervene but she denied this, adding: ‘I was perhaps trying to let a long-standing friend and colleague down gently. Maybe I did it too gently.’ Hamilton finds there was no breach here either.
That Sturgeon misled the Scottish Parliament by failing to mention a meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff when outlining when she learned about the investigation into her predecessor. Sturgeon initially told parliament that she found out about the accusations at the unrecorded meeting with Salmond at her home on April 2, 2018. Later, however, she gave evidence that she had forgotten about a conversation with Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s ex-aide, at Holyrood on March 29. That conversation, she conceded, did involve ‘the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’. Hamilton finds that, although Sturgeon’s failure to tell parliament about the Aberdein meeting was ‘regrettable’, ‘this omission was the result of a genuine failure of recollection and was not deliberate’. No breach.
That Sturgeon failed to comply with the law in the Scottish Government’s response to Alex Salmond’s petition for a judicial review. While acknowledging the government’s behaviour in the civil case was ‘a saga of failures to disclose relevant evidence’, Hamilton outright rejects the suggestion that the code precludes ministers from pressing ahead with legal action in spite of advice to the contrary. He writes: ‘Mr Salmond appears to be under the misapprehension that the government is under a duty to withdraw a case if advised that there is less than an evens chance of winning. There is no such rule and the prediction of the outcome of cases is not an exact science.’ Once again, he finds no breach of the code.
Hamilton gently suggests that the special adviser code of conduct might need to be updated and muses whether ‘some of the provisions of the Ministerial Code which apply to Ministers should also apply with appropriate modifications to special advisers, for example, the requirement to record external contacts’.
Beyond that, however, what Hamilton has handed down is a complete, sweeping exoneration of almost everything Nicola Sturgeon did and failed to do – at least in relation to his remit. The Scottish Conservatives will be bringing a vote of no confidence tomorrow but, as things stand, the combined numbers of SNP and Green MSPs makes it all but impossible for the Tory motion to be carried.
Unless the Holyrood inquiry is explosive, unless Alex Salmond has a Columbo-style ‘just one more thing’ moment up his sleeve, unless the opposition can somehow convince ministers to set up a full, independent, judge-led public inquiry (as the Spectator has called for), it is difficult to see the First Minister resigning. Sturgeon survives.