This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 1, 2021.
It is not often the Budget is the second item on the news agenda. Yet on Wednesday, when Chancellor Rishi Sunak rises at the despatch box to unveil his spending plans, all eyes will be on parliamentary drama 400 miles to the north.
Nicola Sturgeon will, at last, take her seat before the inquiry into her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond.
In ordinary circumstances, this would be a perilous moment for a first minister. The Scottish Government’s investigation into Salmond has already been ruled unlawful by the Court of Session.
The investigating officer had had prior contact with the complainers, which Lord Pentland deemed ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’. The government — i.e. the taxpayer — was ordered to cover Salmond’s legal costs, which ran in excess of £500,000.
Once upon a time, Sturgeon would have called for the first minister of the day to fall on their sword over such a humiliating, costly and self-inflicted legal defeat. It’s a short walk from the opposition to the government benches but those who make it somehow find time to acquire a new worldview along the way.
The questions Sturgeon will face on Wednesday are much bigger than this; thanks, in part, to her own shifting version(s) of events and, in part, to her predecessor’s appearance on Friday.
Salmond sat before a Scottish parliament committee and over the course of six hours calmly and meticulously outlined a ‘malicious plan’ by people close to Sturgeon to have him imprisoned. There was evidence for this plot, he claimed, but it was being suppressed by the Crown Office, an institution headed up by a member of Sturgeon’s Cabinet.
Further documents, he alleged, could demonstrate there had been ‘pressurising witnesses and collusion with witnesses’ and ‘the construction of evidence’, but these too he was forbidden to share on pain of contempt of court charges.
He also suggested that a ‘criminal’ leak about the harassment investigation against him came from within the Scottish Government. Calling into question Sturgeon’s prior statements about a secret meeting between the two, he pronounced: ‘I have no doubt that Nicola has broken the ministerial code.’ This was a nuclear strike at the heart of the very government Salmond used to head.
Sturgeon rejects all this. She has accused her one-time mentor of peddling ‘dangerous conspiracy theories’.
The plot Salmond has alleged sounds like the script of a political thriller BBC Scotland might broadcast (in one of the few hours of airtime not already assigned to the First Minister). A Very Scottish Coup, we might call it.
Yet, however lurid Salmond’s claims, the committee needs to be able to test them against evidence, something which the Crown Office will not allow it to do.
This does nothing to safeguard the integrity of justice in Scotland. Whatever principle the Crown seeks to uphold, by behaving as it has it plays into the narrative of dark forces and sinister machinations that Salmond is fashioning.
On Wednesday, Sturgeon will have her turn before the inquiry and she is expected to be the last witness heard before the committee retires to reach its conclusions. It will fall to committee members to challenge the First Minister on her statements, those of her predecessor and the factual record (or such of that record as the inquiry is allowed to see).
Sturgeon originally said she learned of allegations against Salmond at a summit on April 2, 2018, then remembered an earlier meeting with his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, at which there was ‘the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’. Sturgeon claims the April 2 get-together was a party matter, not government business, which is why she took two months to tell civil servants about it.
Her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell maintains it was government business, not a party matter, and that is why he was (mostly) not present.
Salmond claims the identity of one of the complainers was vouchsafed to Aberdein. When this was put to her at First Minister’s Questions, Sturgeon replied: ‘To the very best of my knowledge, I do not think that that happened.’
It is imperative for good governance, public confidence and natural justice the committee gets to the bottom of this.
However, the Sturgeon camp has sought to portray those trying to do so as mouthpieces for Salmond. Under pressure from Labour’s Jackie Baillie last week, Sturgeon retorted: ‘I am not sure when she became the chief spokesperson for Alex Salmond’. The implication was clear: anyone attempting to establish the truth about what happened, rather than accept the First Minister’s statements as gospel, is biased, compromised and partisan.
The reason there is a parliamentary inquiry, deliberately weak and narrow though it is, is because there are questions that require answers. How is the committee to fulfil its task, and how is the public to have confidence in its eventual findings, when the First Minister whose government is under investigation openly smears a committee member as a shill for an interested party?
There has been a lot of talk in recent days — much of it self-serving cant — about the undermining of Scottish institutions by the opposition but, tellingly, much less mithering about the contemptuous way in which the First Minister and others have treated the Holyrood inquiry.
Salmond is not a sympathetic figure but that should have no bearing on the question of whether Sturgeon and her government acted improperly. These are the gravest matters that have come before the Scottish parliament in two decades of devolution and the consequences must be equally grave.
If the First Minister misled parliament, she ought to resign. If she broke the ministerial code, she ought to resign. Caesar and her husband run the country and both must be above suspicion.
Why Tories should back Baillie
Jackie Baillie’s confident performance as interim Scottish Labour leader and her unflinching efforts on the Salmond inquiry have been a reminder of what an asset she is to Holyrood.
She faces a battle to get re-elected on May 6 and the all-important number is 109. That’s her majority over the SNP in Dumbarton.
Baillie is a mainstream social democrat with a record of fighting for ordinary people, taking on the SNP and standing up for the Union. The Tories are too far behind to win this seat but the almost 5,000 votes they managed last time will be crucial.
If enough switch to Baillie, Dumbarton will keep a hard-working MSP whose priorities are Covid, health, schools and jobs. If not, Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate will capture the seat and help drag us into another divisive referendum. That’s the last thing anyone needs.
Tactical voting can be risky, but not in Dumbarton. It’s a choice between Jackie Baillie and Nicola Sturgeon.
Swinney faces numbers test
Deputy First Minister John Swinney faces a vote of no confidence at Holyrood after twice refusing to hand over taxpayer-funded legal advice on the Alex Salmond affair. Given his track record as Education Secretary, he has nothing to worry about. Even if the motion gets a majority, he can mark it down based on past performance.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.