It is an iron law of Scottish politics: never write off Alex Salmond.
The former First Minister’s acquittal by a jury on a series of sexual assault charges brings to an end what he described as a ‘nightmare’.
The political fallout, however, is still to come. Joanna Cherry, a senior Nationalist at Westminster, said: ‘It goes without saying that Mr Salmond must be allowed to rejoin the party without delay, if that is what he wishes to do, and that his place in the party’s history must be restored to the prominence it deserves.’
Readmission to the SNP would represent just the beginning. Consequences there will be and they will be relentless.
The allegations against Mr Salmond were first reported in August 2018 and when they hit, they rocked Scottish politics and public life. He had been a fixture for three decades and the most powerful man in the country for seven years.
A divisive figure, to be sure, but one with a substantial body of admirers who extolled his virtues as a patriot and a leader. They could not – would not – believe the claims against him.
Those claims were lodged with the Scottish Government in January of that year and involved two female members of staff who accused Mr Salmond of inappropriate conduct five years earlier during his tenure in Bute House.
He vigorously denied the accusations and sought a judicial review of the government’s internal inquiry into him. Before the Court of Session could render a judgment, the Scottish Government conceded that it had acted unlawfully.
This represented an ‘abject surrender’ in Mr Salmond’s estimation and he was awarded more than £500,000 in legal costs.
The former Nationalist leader, now outside the party, next came under the scrutiny of a police inquiry, which led to him being charged with 14 sexual offences, one of which was attempted rape. One charge would later be dropped. Mr Salmond vowed to clear his name and now he has.
A great deal of pain and anguish has fallen upon a great many people. The women who came forward and gave evidence in court have been through a nightmare too. While we survey the political terrain in the approaching distance, we should not lose sight of the wretched human toll of these past two years.
As Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged yesterday, ‘there will be further discussion around this issue in due course’.
However, Ms Cherry’s remarks went to the heart of the matter: ‘This verdict of acquittal is the culmination of two very lengthy investigations by the Scottish Government and Police Scotland and two court cases.
‘In both cases, Mr Salmond has been vindicated and serious questions now arise about the background to these cases especially given the considerable sums of public money which have been expended.’
How this came about, what happened behind closed doors, and whether those in authority acquitted themselves fittingly will be the subject of intense scrutiny.
Mr Salmond believes he was the target of a conspiracy, telling journalists: ‘There is evidence I would have liked to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we were not able to do so. At some point that information will see the light of day.’
There is already a parliamentary inquiry in train at Holyrood and Ms Cherry’s call for an internal investigation into the SNP’s handling of the matter will not be a lonely one. Already, former Scottish Government Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has urged ‘resignations’.
For Mr Salmond, rebuilding his public reputation will be a priority and he may indeed decide to re-enter the political arena. Like it or not, the verdict entitles him to do so. The man’s politics do not come into this and nor does his abrasive personality. He may be a boor and a demagogue. He may be, as he conceded, ‘no saint’. But the law says he is not a criminal and we must accept its verdict.
As far as his political career is concerned, Mr Salmond has two options: rejoin the SNP or form a new party. The former is the likelier, for he has dedicated his life to the party he has led twice (so far).
However, readmitting him poses grave danger for Nicola Sturgeon. She is a creature of his success, the protégée he mentored. He is the man who made her deputy First Minister, who put her in charge of the campaign for independence, and who ultimately handed her the crown. She is in large part where she is because he put her there.
The question is whether Mr Salmond still considers her a loyal ally. Cleared in court, his status as a hero to the SNP grassroots will only be polished more brightly. He may now choose to return to Holyrood, either by convincing a friendly backbencher to resign or by clinching selection for a seat ahead of the 2021 election. There he could serve as party elder, providing Miss Sturgeon with counsel and political reinforcements. Or he could decide to take back what he gifted to her.
It is no secret, however, that their relationship has been strained. The second option, then, is more plausible – grimly plausible for Miss Sturgeon’s political future. She already finds herself on the wrong side of the party base. She has promised to deliver a second referendum on Scexit time and again. Time and again, she has failed to do so.
She has neglected to translate Brexit and Boris Johnson’s unpopularity north of the Border into a solid majority for secession. She has led her men to the edges of the battlefield only to retreat so many times that some want the old general back.
Biding his time until coronavirus is under control and, crucially, until the Holyrood probe into the Sturgeon government would shield Mr Salmond from charges of opportunism. It would also allow him to assemble the sharpest team and plan his next moves.
The old king holds all the cards and he will deal them at the optimal moment.