‘Is saving your skin worth all the damage you’re doing?’

INDEPENDENT: Nicola Sturgeon said prosecutors were autonomous of government.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on February 25, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

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First Minister’s Questions is an unpredictable affair. Sometimes Ruth Davidson gets the better of Nicola Sturgeon. Sometimes Jackie Baillie does. Sometimes Sturgeon barely has to flick open her briefing folder to brush their attack lines aside.

Yesterday was different. We saw something we might never have seen in her six-and-a-half years in the job: Sturgeon cornered.

She’s been caught out, pulled up and dragged over the coals, but seldom has she appeared so outflanked and so alone. She looked like a woman who had glimpsed behind her and caught sight of how little road was left.

That didn’t mean she buckled. She came out swinging when Ruth Davidson raised the Crown Office’s censoring of Alex Salmond’s Holyrood inquiry evidence.

Davidson read aloud from one of the redacted passages: ‘The First Minister told Parliament … that she first learned of the complaints against me when I visited her home on April 2, 2018. That is untrue and is a breach of the ministerial code.’

The Tory group leader pointed out that these words did not ‘risk identifying complainers’. Then, in that exaggeratedly quiet voice she adopts to sound solemn: ‘What is it about those two sentences of evidence that is so damaging that they should be censored? Is it just that they are damaging to the First Minister?’

‘The fact that Ruth Davidson has stood up and perfectly legitimately recounted that version of events… demonstrates that all Mr Salmond’s allegations and claims about me are in the public domain,’ Sturgeon replied.

She expected to be ‘questioned on every aspect of the matter’ and pledged to ‘answer those questions fully and to the best of my ability’.

Her tone grew graver: ‘Anyone who is suggesting that prosecution decisions… are in any way politically influenced or politically driven is not just wrong and completely lacking a single shred of evidence… they are signing up to a dangerous and quite deluded conspiracy theory.’

Davidson engaged in a sleekit spot of a wordplay by suggesting that — ‘to the public’ — the whole business ‘looks like a cover-up’ because ‘the exact evidence that has been redacted is the most damaging to her personally’. Ascribing that view to the public was intended to keep her hands clean if Sturgeon is vindicated in the end.

The phrase ‘cover-up’ was red-rag territory and Sturgeon charged straight for it. It was ‘important, necessary and entirely legitimate’ to scrutinise her but it was ‘not legitimate… to pursue a conspiracy theory or scorched-earth policy that threatens the reputation and integrity of Scotland’s independent justice institutions just because they happen to dislike the government’.

By this point, it was obvious she wasn’t talking to Davidson, which was confirmed when she suggested public confidence in the system was being ‘sacrificed… on the altar of the ego of one man’.

You had to pinch yourself to remember this was Nicola Sturgeon talking about Alex Salmond. Together, they made the SNP the natural party of government in Scotland. At odds, they seem hellbent on tearing each other down.

The Tory accused Sturgeon of ‘deflection’, adding: ‘There is just one further question that I want to ask. Is the First Minister saving her own skin worth all the damage that she is doing?’

It was a proper air-sucker of a question, though the Covid-imposed reduction in FMQs attendance undercut the impact.

Sturgeon insisted she was only interested in ‘the reputation of our country and the integrity of our institutions’, but added with hot spite: ‘There is a reputation that is perhaps disintegrating before our eyes — and it is not mine.’

Jackie Baillie claimed the name of one of the Salmond complainers was given to the ex-leader’s chief of staff, something she called ‘an extraordinary breach of confidentiality’. Sturgeon shot back that she was ‘accepting at face value Alex Salmond’s account of all this’.

If one thing was clear from this raw, resentment-drenched FMQs, no one will ever accept anything at face value in Scottish politics ever again.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

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