Nicola Sturgeon is fighting for her political life

3 March 2021

7:32 AM

3 March 2021

7:32 AM

The Alex Salmond inquiry has seen its most remarkable day yet. Three pivotal documents have been released to the Holyrood committee probing a Scottish Government internal investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Scotland’s former First Minister. The Court of Session has already declared that investigation to have been ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’ and Salmond has been acquitted on 13 counts of sexual assault in a separate criminal trial. He claims that key figures around Nicola Sturgeon, his protege-turned-adversary, conspired to imprison him.

The papers published today reveal the legal advice the Scottish Government was given about its chances of success in Salmond’s civil case against them and — most inflammatory of all — his allegation that the name of one of the complainants against him was passed on by a government official.

The legal advice has been a point of contention throughout the long-running inquiry. Despite two votes by the Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon’s government refused to provide a copy to the inquiry. Only today, when the opposition parties coalesced around a no-confidence motion against Sturgeon’s deputy, was a heavily-redacted version of the document published.

It shows that, while the government’s counsel believed ‘the procedures adopted here are defensible’ (i.e. the framework used to investigate Salmond), they stressed that, on Salmond’s argument that the procedure was used against him unfairly, ‘we cannot say that there is anything other than a material possibility that the Court will agree with the petitioners’ complaints in this regard’. In the end, the Scottish Government went ahead anyway and, after the probe into Salmond was found unlawful, was forced to pay his legal costs in excess of £500,000.

The Ministerial Code states that there is an ‘overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law’ and that:

‘Ministers and officials should therefore ensure that their decisions are informed by appropriate analysis of the legal considerations and that the legal implications of any course of action are considered at the earliest opportunity.’

Much more damaging to the Scottish Government — potentially lethal, in fact — are two other documents made public this afternoon. One is a statement by Kevin Pringle, a former Scottish Government special adviser, and the other a statement by advocate Duncan Hamilton, who represented Salmond in the civil case. Both are leading figures in the SNP.

Their written submissions address Salmond’s claim that the identity of one of the complainers who came forward to accuse him was vouchsafed to Geoff Aberdein, his former chief of staff. Pringle says: ‘I can confirm from my conversations with Mr Aberdein that he is in no doubt that a complainant’s name was shared with him at the meeting referred to.’

Hamilton adds:

‘I can also confirm that I was told the name of a complainant by Mr Aberdein… The name of the complainant had been given to Mr Aberdein by a senior government official. I confirm that I am aware of the identity of the government official who gave the name of the complainant to Mr Aberdein.’

If it is the case that ‘a senior government official’ identified a complainant in a sexual harassment investigation to one of the subject’s associates, it is the most damning piece of evidence in the entire inquiry. It would undercut the very principles underpinning the procedure and call into question repeated assertions that the Scottish Government’s foremost interest was doing right by the complainants. The Scottish Conservatives have tonight called for Sturgeon to resign.

The First Minister appears before the committee tomorrow and today’s document dump will be the source of many of the questions she faces. She has accused Salmond of peddling ‘dangerous conspiracy theories’.

Twenty-four hours ago, it would have been hard to think of anything more incendiary than Salmond’s claims during his appearance before the committee on Friday. Even by this afternoon, with the Scottish Government agreeing to release its legal advice, it seemed as though the Lord Advocate’s performance before the inquiry was going to be the chief difficulty for Sturgeon’s administration. James Wolffe QC is both head of the Crown Office (Scotland’s equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service) and a member of Sturgeon’s Cabinet. It was his office that caused the Scottish Parliament to redact Salmond’s written evidence and, Salmond says, warned him in writing about what evidence he was forbidden to raise in his testimony.

Testifying himself earlier today, Wolffe was asked about Salmond’s claim that the Scottish Government had failed to hand over around 40 documents, despite being served with a search warrant. Quizzed by the committee on whether non-compliance with a warrant would constitute a criminal offence, Wolffe said: ‘I am not going to make any comment in the abstract on what might or might not be a criminal offence’. For the most senior law officer in Scotland to avoid giving a clear answer on the duty to obey the law is being viewed as extraordinary. Inquiry member Murdo Fraser, a solicitor by profession, says: ‘This government will trample over everything, even fundamental legal principles, to avoid admitting wrongdoing. What would lawyers acting for accused persons make of the lord advocate refusing to confirm that people should comply with search warrants?’

Now the Lord Advocate’s awkwardness under questioning is likely to be overshadowed by whether the Scottish Government heeded legal advice and whether a complainant’s name was indeed shared. When she takes a seat before the inquiry tomorrow, Nicola Sturgeon will be fighting for her political life. Expect her to come out swinging.

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