Scottish first minister prepares to take on Salmond

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon will this week try to restore faith in her leadership following bombshell allegations from her predecessor Alex Salmond that many in her Scottish National party fear will undermine its push for independence from the UK.

In an extraordinary appearance before a Scottish parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of harassment complaints against him by civil servants, Salmond on Friday accused his former protégé of breaching the ministerial code and her closest allies of a concerted effort to drive him from public life.

Sturgeon, who has previously dismissed Salmond’s claims as “wild conspiracy” and denied breaching the code, has the opportunity to give a detailed rebuttal during an appearance before the parliamentary committee scheduled for Wednesday.

How successfully she does so could have major implications for her future as first minister and the SNP’s hopes of winning Scottish elections in May and then securing an independence referendum.

Did Salmond land a knockout blow against Sturgeon?

No, said political analysts, but Salmond fleshed out some serious allegations which, if proven, could be highly damaging or even fatal for Sturgeon’s first ministership and might hurt public support for the SNP.

Salmond’s nearly six-hour parliamentary committee appearance, much of it arcane discussion of complaints procedures, was built up as a Hollywood blockbuster, but turned into a “12-part documentary”, said Andy Maciver, lobbyist and former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives.

He questioned whether Salmond’s appearance would have an immediate negative impact on Sturgeon and the SNP, but added the party could suffer long term damage from growing divisions that had been put on show on Friday. “We now have a fracturing in the SNP that was not there before,” said Mciver.

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How damaging are Salmond’s allegations against Sturgeon?

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in Salmond’s appearance was when he suggested messages he had been shown ahead of his trial last year on charges of sexual offences against women demonstrated there had been “collusion of witnesses” and “construction of evidence” involving Sturgeon’s allies.

Salmond, who was last March acquitted of the 13 charges against him, complained about a decision of the Crown Office, Scotland’s public prosecution service, not to let him share the messages with the parliamentary committee on the legal grounds that they were gathered solely for use in the trial.

The committee has now demanded prosecutors hand over communications involving Peter Murrell, who is Sturgeon’s husband and SNP chief executive, the first minister’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd, and two senior party officials, in an apparent attempt to establish if there was collusion.

But some analysts questioned whether the messages will be the smoking gun Salmond suggested, citing judge Lady Dorrian’s decision ahead of his trial that they should not be put before the jury.

“If there was compelling evidence of a conspiracy, why would a judge refuse to allow that to go in front of a criminal trial?” said Andrew Tickell, lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian university.

What must Sturgeon do to extricate herself from the crisis?

Sturgeon is expected on Wednesday to seek to persuade the parliamentary committee — and more importantly voters — that there was no conspiracy against Salmond and no sinister intent behind a botched 2018 civil service-led investigation into harassment complaints against him that the Scottish government later admitted had been “tainted by apparent bias”.

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She is also expected to seek to rebut Salmond’s claims that she misled parliament about when she first learned of the complaints against him and that she failed to properly report meetings at which the two discussed the matter. Salmond claimed these actions amounted to breaches of the ministerial code — a potential resignation matter.

How badly damaged are the first minister and the SNP?

Sturgeon has already referred herself to James Hamilton, the Scottish government’s independent adviser on the ministerial code and a former head of Ireland’s prosecution service, and analysts said his ruling was likely to be more decisive for the first minister’s future than the parliamentary committee proceedings.

A Survation poll for the Sunday Mail conducted the day before Salmond’s committee appearance suggested 39 per cent of voters believed there had been a Scottish government cover-up over its handling of the complaints against the former first minister and 50 per cent thought Sturgeon should resign if found to have broken the ministerial code.

Peter Lynch, lecturer at Stirling university, said it was unclear if there would be any lasting impact on public opinion but that the affair might “take the froth off” the SNP’s popularity, potentially preventing the party winning a majority in the Scottish parliament in the May elections. That would make it easier for the UK government to refuse approval for a another Scottish independence referendum.

“If I was in one of the unionist parties I would be loving every minute of it, because they’ve finally got an issue that can damage the first minister,” said Lynch.

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