With friends like these: How Salmond became Sturgeon's biggest threat
In the first week of the new year, the travails of 2020 by no means behind us, Nicola Sturgeon got to her feet at Holyrood and announced another national lockdown.
While not initially as strict or far-reaching as the restrictions of last spring, it would nevertheless leave many of us confined to our homes for the foreseeable future. Crucially, it would also mean the closure of Scotland’s schools until at least the start of February.
A few hours later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his own statement to a weary nation, he too announcing the closure of schools in England until at least half term. It represented a screeching U-turn for a government which had allowed children to return to class a day earlier following repeated assertions from Johnson himself that schools were “safe”.
Throughout the pandemic the differences between the two leaders have been stark. Johnson has consistently mangled the old maxim of under-promising and over-delivering, while Sturgeon has shown herself a serious leader for a serious time, someone who grasped the gravity of the crisis early on and has communicated skillfully throughout.
When the pandemic has finally been brought under control, the statistics may not show that Scotland has outperformed the UK. Serious mistakes have undoubtedly been made, most notably the decision to transfer infected patients from hospital to care homes during the early months of the crisis.
Yet it’s little wonder that Sturgeon’s critics rail against the BBC for showing her daily COVID briefings, providing as they do a quotidian reminder of how much better she is at messaging than many of her rivals.
But while her political opponents at Holyrood have repeatedly failed to lay a glove on her, Sturgeon could yet be dealt a fatal blow by her once closest ally.
Alex Salmond, the former first minister and Sturgeon’s one-time friend and political mentor, has accused his former deputy of misleading parliament and breaking the ministerial code – a resignation issue – in explaining her knowledge of complaints of sexual misconduct against him.
The revelations come in a seven-page written submission to James Hamilton, an independent adviser who is conducting an inquiry at Sturgeon’s instigation into whether or not she has indeed breached the ministerial code.
In Salmond’s submission, which was later shared with the committee of MSPs examining the Scottish Government’s botched investigation of the complaints, he acknowledges the inquiry’s narrow remit is likely to see the First Minister cleared, although Hamilton has confirmed that he will expand his investigation to consider whether Sturgeon did indeed mislead parliament.
In a week otherwise dominated by political developments in the United States and the continuing fight against COVID, news of the submission broke – like so many good stories – at 5pm on a Friday when details were published online by The Times and on the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland.
The now obvious rift between Salmond and Sturgeon dates back to August 2018 and the first emergence of the allegations against Salmond.
Against the backdrop of the #MeToo campaign in 2017, which was by then sending shockwaves through not just Hollywood but the worlds of business and politics, the Scottish Government had moved to set up a new mechanism for reporting complaints, including against former ministers.
It wasn’t long before two were made against Salmond dating back to his time as first minister.
The resulting internal investigation was to lead to a major embarrassment for the government when the Court of Session ruled in a judicial review brought by Salmond that it had been unlawful, leaving the taxpayer to pick up Salmond’s £500,000 legal bill.
However, the ruling had no bearing on a separate criminal case against the former SNP leader which eventually came to court in the spring of last year and which concluded with Salmond being cleared of 12 charges including attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault. A further charge of sexual assault with intent to rape was found not proven.
The verdict notwithstanding, the case was a bruising one in which Salmond’s own QC, Gordon Jackson, had admitted his client could have been a “better man on occasions”.
Jackson’s own reputation would later take a hit when video of him emerged in which he could be heard discussing the case on a train during the first week of the trial, allegedly naming two of the complainants and referring to the former first minister as “an objectionable bully” and a “nasty person to work for”.
Addressing members of the press outside the High Court in Edinburgh after the verdict and as the country went into lockdown because of the pandemic, Salmond hinted at what was come, telling reporters of “certain evidence” he had been unable to have introduced at the trial.
“At some point, that information, that facts and that evidence will see the light of day,” he said.
Nearly a year on and with Scotland still in the midst of the deadly virus which has relegated nearly everything else to the political peripheries, the affair continues to grip.
Questions abound over Sturgeon’s actions during the initial Scottish Government investigation into her old boss, as well as her meetings with him.
Initially, the First Minister told MSPs at Holyrood that she first learned of the allegations against Salmond on 2 April 2018 during a meeting between the two at her Glasgow home.
She later wrote to the committee of MSPs set up to examine the internal investigation, telling them she had forgotten about a meeting four days earlier in the Scottish Parliament on 29 March with Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein.
According to Sturgeon, that meeting covered both the fact that Salmond wanted to see her “urgently about a serious matter” and that it might relate to allegations of a sexual nature.
But in Salmond’s recent written submission, he claims the First Minister’s position is “simply untrue” and “untenable” because Aberdein had “personally discussed the existence of the complaints and summarised the substance of the complaints” during the meeting.
He maintains that the First Minister’s position, namely that she first learned of the complaints on the meeting of 2 April, is both “untrue and a breach of the ministerial code”.
Outlining what he believes to be breaches of the ministerial code, Salmond goes on to allege that Sturgeon’s chief of staff met with Aberdein twice in March 2018 and that in the second of these meetings, she informed him of the two complaints, naming one of the women involved.
Referring to the meeting between Aberdein and Sturgeon later that month, Salmond writes: “There was never the slightest doubt what the meeting was about. Any suggestion by the First Minister to the Scottish Parliament (Official Report, 8th October 2020) that the meeting was ‘fleeting or opportunistic’ is simply untrue.”
Salmond goes on to write that parliament has been “repeatedly misled” about the nature of the meeting on 2 April.
“The First Minister told parliament (see Official Report of 8th, 10th & 17th January 2019) that she first learned of the complaints against me when I visited her home on 2nd April 2018. That is untrue and is a breach of the ministerial code.”
Salmond concludes by suggesting that an August 2018 article in the Daily Record, the first media report of the allegations against him, was the result of a leak from the First Minister’s office.
A spokesperson for the First Minister has rejected Salmond’s claims, accusing him of “seeking to malign [Sturgeon’s] reputation” and of “spinning false conspiracy theories”.
But it all makes for an incredibly uncomfortable few months for Sturgeon in the run-up to May’s elections.
Last week, Salmond asked that an invitation to appear in person before the committee of MSPs which is looking at the Scottish Government’s handling of the harassment complaints be delayed until next month – a request that was refused by committee convener Linda Fabiani.
In a letter to the committee, his lawyers cite concerns about sending a “bad message” amid ongoing COVID restrictions and Salmond’s ability to speak about documentation and give evidence under oath without fear of criminal prosecution.
Suggesting a date of 16 February, the letter signs off: “Assuming you still wish to call the First Minister the week after our client then, as we understand it, the parliamentary timetable would still give a full month for the committee to agree and publish a report to parliament. That, of course, is on the assumption that the election timetable stays at May.”
For Sturgeon, a politician who has looked so assured for much of the past year, there could be some difficult weeks ahead.