Political Spotlight: Coming out fighting
The gloves are well and truly off in the Sturgeon vs Salmond battle.
Arguably, it was always going to get to this point but now it has arrived, it still feels slightly unreal. Then again, we are living in 2020 and anything is possible.
Two of the most formidable forces in the SNP’s history, two people who once worked so closely together in their campaign for independence, two people who were once close friends and allies, now stand firmly at opposite ends.
As well as finding out just how the Scottish Government managed to botch the investigation into harassment complaints made against Salmond – who was of course cleared of all criminal charges – the committee is also shining a spotlight on the conduct of Scotland’s serving First Minister.
What comes out of the committee’s investigation has the potential to damage Sturgeon’s reputation – and career – irreparably.
So, it’s no surprise then that Sturgeon – who has maintained a certain degree of silence throughout the process, reserving comment unless absolutely necessary – has now changed tack to come out fighting.
In recent weeks, she has come under increasing scrutiny for her role in the investigation and, significantly, what she knew about the complaints and when.
It is the timing of when she learned about the complaints and what she did with that information which is proving central to the inquiry – and could ultimately lead to the FM’s downfall.
Perhaps rather unfairly, Sturgeon was accused earlier this month of not assisting the committee because her written evidence had not yet been made public, despite the fact she submitted it two months previously.
Indeed, the usually placid Tory MSP Oliver Mundell was thrown out of the Holyrood debating chamber after calling Sturgeon a liar.
Will the Presiding Officer ask the First Minister to explain why she lied to parliament?
“In this chamber on the 17th of January, the First Minister said that the Salmond inquiries ‘will be able to request whatever material they want and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request’,” said Mundell. “Will the Presiding Officer ask the First Minister to explain why she lied to parliament?”
Frustrated, Sturgeon could do nothing other than state that she had already provided the evidence she had been asked for and that it wasn’t her fault this had not yet been made public.
But when the FM’s written submission was finally published, it did not help her case either. This is where the detail of the who, what, where and when gets more intricate.
With the publication of the written evidence, it emerged that she had somehow forgotten about a key meeting with Salmond’s aide in which she was first alerted to allegations of sexual misconduct against the former first minister.
Sturgeon had previously told MSPs that she first learned of the complaints against Salmond on 2 April 2018, in a meeting at her home in Glasgow.
But in her written evidence, she said she had “forgotten” about a meeting with Geoff Aberdein, a former aide to Salmond, on 29 March.
Sturgeon said Aberdein had been in parliament to see a former colleague and had come to see her while he was there.
She said: “I had forgotten that this encounter had taken place until I was reminded of it in, I think, late January/early February 2019.
“For context, I think the meeting took place not long after the weekly session of FMQs and in the midst of a busy day in which I would have been dealing with a multitude of other matters.
“However, from what I recall, the discussion covered the fact that Alex Salmond wanted to see me urgently about a serious matter, and I think it did cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature.”
Sturgeon went on to say that while she “suspected” what her predecessor wanted to talk about, “it was Alex Salmond who told me on 2 April that he was being investigated and what the detail of the complaints was”.
It was also claimed in The Times newspaper that Sturgeon withheld other messages between herself and Salmond from MSPs, regarding a key allegation about the former first minister, which his legal team has apparently offered to provide to the committee.
You can imagine the delight Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader at Holyrood, must have felt as she tweeted: “Not content with ‘forgetting’ she met Salmond’s former chief of staff, Nicola Sturgeon has now ‘forgotten’ to hand over WhatsApp messages to the inquiry committee. She’s turned into quite the ditz these days, hasn’t she?”
There was also the matter of the incriminating text messages sent by Sturgeon’s husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
The leaked messages, sent in January 2019, suggested that “folk should be asking the police questions” and that it was a “good time to be pressurising them”. Another message said that “the more fronts he [Salmond] is having to firefight on the better”.
In an additional written submission to the committee, Murrell said he did not express himself well but insisted that “the messages have been presented in a way that suggests a meaning that they do not in reality have.”
He said the texts had been “sent the day after Mr Salmond had been charged with a number of serious offences” and reflected “the shock, hurt and upset” felt by himself and others in the SNP.
I think the reason perhaps he is angry with me – and he clearly is angry with me – is that I didn’t cover it up, I didn’t collude with him to make these allegations go away
And as if all this wasn’t bad enough for the FM, there was yet another twist to the tale – perhaps the most significant yet – when in an eye-opening encounter with Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, she revealed far more than just her impressive bookshelves.
Perhaps she even revealed more than she had intended to, after becoming visibly unsettled by Ridge’s previous line of questioning about Scotland’s handling of the pandemic.
“Have you lost control of COVID-19 in Scotland?” Ridge asked her, followed by: “Why on earth aren’t you using the full testing capacity?”
Then she brought up the latest headache for the FM: the great café vs restaurant debate.
“Genuinely, how do you know if you’re a restaurant or a café?” she asked.
The sight of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, having to spell out that a café is somewhere that sells “light snacks” but not alcohol on Sky News was as amusing as it was bizarre… but again, that’s 2020 for you.
You could almost feel Sturgeon’s blood boiling.
Ridge’s next question was about SNP MP Margaret Ferrier – another recent headache for the FM after it emerged Ferrier had travelled from Glasgow to Westminster while awaiting a COVID-19 test result, then made the return trip after she found out she had the virus – so it’s no surprise that by the time she came to questions about Salmond, Sturgeon was somewhat on the backfoot.
And it was during this line of questioning that Sturgeon shocked viewers by claiming Salmond was angry with her because she didn’t collude with him to cover up the allegations.
This insinuation that Sturgeon had been asked to “collude” or “cover up” the complaints made against her predecessor is incredibly damning for Salmond, if in any way true, but also significant because of the fact the First Minister had never mentioned this before.
Whether she made the comments in anger or frustration or whether she had always planned to make this revelation at that moment is almost irrelevant, because it marked a real turning point in the way she spoke about Salmond publicly.
And, even more significantly, it showed her willingness to fight to clear her name, whatever the repercussions for her (presumably) now former friend.
“One of the worst things I have faced in a political sense was being confronted with the reality that my predecessor, my mentor of 30 years, somebody I consider a friend, closer to me than probably anybody outside my family, was facing serious allegations of sexual misconduct,” she told Ridge.
“At every stage I have tried to do the right thing and not cover it up and I think the reason perhaps he is angry with me – and he clearly is angry with me – is that I didn’t cover it up, I didn’t collude with him to make these allegations go away, and perhaps that is at the root of why he is as annoyed as he appears to be.”
If Sturgeon is right and Salmond is as annoyed as she says he is, then his current silence must be deafening, because, like her, he has already proven he will do whatever it takes in the fight to clear his name.