Former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is back — with explosive claims of conspiracy at the top of the Scottish government that threaten to torpedo the cause of Scottish independence.
His very public feud with his successor Nicola Sturgeon over her government’s handling of harassment complaints against him has reached boiling point, with the publication of Salmond’s argument this week that figures close to Sturgeon tried to “banish him” from public life.
With potentially explosive evidence sessions at the Scottish Parliament with both Salmond and Sturgeon due in the coming days, POLITICO has all you need to know about the saga gripping Scottish politics.
What’s this all about?
In 2018, two female civil servants alleged in a complaint to the Scottish government that they had been sexually harassed by Salmond.
Salmond denied the allegations and successfully took the Scottish government to court over its handling of the complaints, winning a judicial review. The government admitted in court that its handling of the complaints had been “tainted by apparent bias”.
Salmond was later acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault against nine women in a trial last March.
In the wake of the trial, two separate inquiries were set up to investigate the government — and Nicola Sturgeon’s — handling of the complaints.
A Holyrood committee looking at the former was set up last year and has already grilled top government and SNP officials including Sturgeon’s husband and party chief Peter Murrell, who has been accused of misleading the inquiry about what he knew about meetings between Salmond and Sturgeon. He also faced questions about texts he sent that appear to suggest he was pressuring the police to take action against Salmond.
Wait, two inquiries?
Alongside the committee, a separate inquiry led by QC James Hamilton is looking at whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code.
The investigation is centered around what and when she knew of the allegations against Salmond — and whether she misled parliament over this knowledge.
Sturgeon initially told the Scottish Parliament she had first learned of the allegations against Salmond at a meeting on April 2, 2018.
She later admitted in a written submission to the committee that she met with Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein days earlier on March 29 and discussed the possibility of a meeting with Salmond that might involve “allegations of a sexual nature”.
Sturgeon has claimed she forgot about the March meeting, but still only learned of the detail of the complaints from Salmond himself four days later, a claim Salmond said is “untenable” — pointing to unpublished evidence from Aberdein that alleges he discussed the substance of the complaints in detail with Sturgeon on March 29.
The Scottish ministerial code states that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the first minister”. Sturgeon rejects accusations she misled parliament.
The code also states that all of the first minister’s government meetings should be recorded. No notes were made of the April or March meetings.
It’s unclear when Hamilton will complete and publish his report.
So what’s at stake?
A lot. If the Hamilton inquiry finds that Sturgeon misled parliament, it would likely be impossible for her to stay in her position.
The fall of Sturgeon would represent the worst possible scenario for Scottish nationalists, and could terminally harm the cause of Scottish independence.
Coming on the back of more than 20 consecutive polls showing a lead among voters for breaking away from the U.K., May’s elections to the Scottish Parliament represent an opportunity for the SNP to bolster its mandate for a second referendum — and pressure Prime Minister Boris Johnson into granting one.
But if Sturgeon is forced to resign, SNP officials admit a succession battle could spell disaster for their election hopes.
The first minister is also a remarkably popular figure in Scotland, boasting high approval ratings that have soared due to Scots’ perception of how she has handled the coronavirus pandemic compared to Boris Johnson. Nationalists privately admit that the simultaneous rise in pro-independence sentiment is closely linked to her popularity.
The Holyrood committee’s findings, expected before the election, are unlikely to force Sturgeon from power.
Some media reports suggest other senior officials could be at risk — including Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government Leslie Evans, Chief of Staff Liz Lloyd and Murrell.
What has Salmond been saying?
In the first of two bombshell evidence submissions released Monday evening by the Holyrood committee, Salmond accused senior officials in the Scottish government and SNP of engaging in a “malicious and concerted effort” to “banish him” from public life — even trying to land him in jail. Among those he named as responsible are Murrell and Lloyd.
He claimed there had been a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals within the Scottish Government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned.”
The second document released by the committee Monday contained the evidence Salmond provided to the Hamilton inquiry, in which he directly accuses Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code on multiple occasions.
In the coda of his final submission, Salmond made it clear he wanted heads to roll — writing that “the real cost to the Scottish people runs into many millions of pounds and yet no-one in this entire process has uttered the simple words which are necessary on occasions to renew and refresh democratic institutions — ‘I Resign’.”
And from Sturgeon?
In a preemptive strike Monday before the committee released Salmond’s evidence, Sturgeon told broadcasters Salmond hasn’t produced a “shred of evidence” to support his claims. The first minister has denied conspiring against — or with — her predecessor.
Challenging Salmond to prove his claims in front of the committee, she said “this is his opportunity — because the burden of proof of that lies on him, to replace the insinuation and assertion we have heard over several months now with evidence. I don’t believe he can do that, because I know what he is claiming about a conspiracy is not true.”
Salmond was due to appear before the Holyrood committee on Wednesday to make his claims in person. But he pulled out, after Scottish parliamentary authorities took his submission to the Hamilton inquiry down from their website on Tuesday, following a complaint from Scotland’s Crown Office. It had been online for just a matter of hours.
The submission was subsequently reuploaded with new redactions — a move Salmond’s lawyers say “compromises his oral evidence.”
Salmond has previously shelved planned appearances before the committee over its decision not to publish the evidence in question, due to concerns he won’t be able to discuss its contents that are crucial to his central claims against Sturgeon and the Scottish government.
The former first minister’s team have previously briefed that a press conference could be held in place of an evidence session. The committee will meet privately Wednesday to decide on their next steps.
Sturgeon has promised to appear before the committee in a final evidence session.