GLASGOW — The political vultures were circling Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday — but Scotland’s first minister wasn’t going to give them an easy meal.
Against a chorus of resignation cries, her message to a parliamentary committee investigating government malpractice was clear: mistakes were made, but I’ve got nothing to hide.
There was no conspiracy against her predecessor Alex Salmond, Sturgeon asserted, appearing before a marathon all-day session of an inquiry into the mishandling of sexual harassment claims leveled at Scotland’s former leader (for which he was subsequently acquitted in court). Her government didn’t wilfully waste half-a-million pounds of public money fighting a doomed legal case against her onetime mentor, Sturgeon added; nor did she mislead parliament about the affair’s finer details. She is, in her own mind, innocent of all charges.
The opposition disagrees. Lawmakers were uncompromising — and seemingly unconvinced — in the oral evidence session, and the threat of a confidence vote still hangs over Sturgeon’s head. More importantly, however, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its campaign for independence remains riven by a dispute that shows no sign of abating.
Here are five takeaways from Sturgeon’s committee appearance:
1. No conspiracy
“I want to take this opportunity to say sorry,” Sturgeon said this morning, her voice charged with emotion. Sorry to the women let down by a bungled investigation into abuse allegations; sorry to the taxpayer whose money was lost on a mishandled court case. But for Salmond, who last year was cleared of all harassment charges, there was no apology.
Instead, the first minister rubbished his “absurd” claim that she and others had conspired to ruin his reputation in an effort to banish him from public life.
“Alex Salmond has been for most of my life — since I was about 20, 21 years old — not just a very close political colleague,” Sturgeon said, but “a friend, someone in my younger days who I looked up to and revered … I had no motive, intention, desire to get [him].”
True or not, the pair’s acrimonious split has cleaved their party in two. As Sturgeon issued her opening remarks, #IStandWithNicola spread as an online rallying cry for supportive colleagues. Today, their voice was the loudest — but Salmond loyalists fill party ranks and are a group both beholden to their former leader and skeptical of Sturgeon’s stewardship of the independence campaign.
2. Sturgeon knew what, when?
At the very heart of the controversy is precisely when Sturgeon learnt of the allegations against her former boss. That may seem an inconsequential detail, but political opponents — and Salmond — say Sturgeon misled parliament with the timeframe she provided.
The first minister told lawmakers it was during a meeting at her home in April 2018 that she was notified of the harassment accusations, though it is claimed she was in fact told days earlier by Salmond’s chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein.
“My recollection [of the earlier meeting] is still not as vivid as I would like it to be,” Sturgeon said Wednesday; an explanation that raised eyebrows on the parliamentary panel given the nature of the information that was imparted to the first minister.
This matters because, if proven to have misled the inquiry, Sturgeon would be in breach of her government’s ministerial code, meaning she would be expected to resign.
The first minister vociferously denies any wrongdoing and awaits the findings of an adjacent investigation into the specific allegation.
3. Doomed court case
In late 2018, the Scottish government pushed on with an ill-fated (and expensive) court case against Salmond, though defeat was all-but-certain. Why? On Wednesday, Sturgeon set out to provide an answer.
Yes, her side’s argument was seriously hampered by the fact officials had had prior contact with complainants, and yes, government lawyers shared huge doubts about victory a full three months before concession. But the case was winnable until the 11th hour, Sturgeon maintained; and so the cost of defeat — £500,000 of public money — must be taken on the chin.
That’s a difficult pill to swallow, but not, the first minister argued, tantamount to a breach of the ministerial code, as her predecessor suggested last week. And of the claims that she allowed the doomed civil proceedings to persist in the hope that they would, before long, be eclipsed by Salmond’s criminal case? “Absurd and bizarre, and just completely without any evidential or factual foundation,” Sturgeon said.
4. Who’s leaking?
In an apparent breach of data protection laws, the name of one of Salmond’s accusers was passed by a senior official to his team — or so the former first minister claims.
Sturgeon and the Scottish government have long disputed this, but on Tuesday night, two individuals close to Salmond — his lawyer and a former adviser — caused shockwaves by publicly corroborating the charge. The reaction was volcanic, with immediate calls for Sturgeon to resign.
Challenged on the issue, she said this new evidence amounted to hearsay, and that her predecessor likely learned the claimant’s identity by trawling through government social media feeds pertaining to the day of the alleged incident.
Whether that defence will hold up to further scrutiny, only time will tell, but it’s not the only leaking allegation. Last week, Salmond called for a police investigation into the disclosure of complaints against him to the press — a politically motivated move, he claimed.
“I don’t know where the leaks came from. I can tell you where I know they didn’t come from, they didn’t come from me, they didn’t come from anybody acting on my authority,” Sturgeon said.
5. This ain’t over
With May’s pivotal Scottish parliament election fast approaching, the SNP is desperate to put the Salmond debacle to bed. After Wednesday’s fireworks, that’s not going to happen.
With Sturgeon on the ropes, opposition leaders are desperate to dent her towering popularity before voters go to the polls. Some — namely Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross — want to go further, calling for a vote of no confidence in the first minister.
Whether the numbers are there for that to pass isn’t clear, but the reputational harm could sting Sturgeon regardless. She is trying to sell the Scottish people on independence, a decision of unparalleled historic significance. That requires public trust — something the SNP will worry is now ebbing away.