Like one of those self-indulgent Netflix series that hangs around one season too many, Nicola Sturgeon’s starring role has been wearing thin for some time.
The First Minister’s season finale came in eight hours of deflection and obfuscation yesterday before the Holyrood committee, the inquiry into how an entire government came down with amnesia about very specific legal points and no one had to resign. To think they called the storylines on Lost implausible.
Sturgeon’s style was different to Alex Salmond’s in a number of ways. It was less grand and more lawyerly, less bombastic and more reflective. It was, nonetheless, a slick turn from a leading lady who had been learning her lines for almost two years. No wonder she was falling over herself to get in front of the cameras. This was to be one of her last triumphant appearances before the election.
For the most part, Sturgeon was dry, technical, qualifying every other word. This was Sturgeon the Glasgow solicitor. At other points, however, she deployed humour — sometimes viciously so — to cast doubt on Salmond, his conduct and his testimony. This was Sturgeon the savvy show-woman.
Her testimony was dotted throughout with all the familiar Sturgeonisms: the practised titters (themselves an inheritance from Salmond); the spectacles gymnastics (glasses on and off for perusing documents and for effect); the hyperactive hypotheticals (every difficulty parried with a counterfactual that, wouldn’t you know, exculpated Sturgeon).
Salmond spoke about her with cold detachment, while her voice mellowed and cracked when it brought forth his name. He evidently feels nothing for her, but she seems to struggle with the vanishing of a close friend and champion. He talked about her as though she was dead to him. She talked about him as though his loss still grieved her.
As is often the case with long grief, there was tremendous anger there: ‘Alec spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him and I don’t doubt that. I have thought often about the impact on him. He was someone I cared about for a long time. Maybe that’s why, on Friday, I found myself searching for any sign that he recognised how difficult this has been for others too.’
She had in mind not only his accusers but ‘those of us who have campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend — and who now stand accused of plotting against him’.
There was no doubt, she recognised, that he had been acquitted in court but ‘his behaviour was not always appropriate’.
‘And yet,’ she lamented, ‘across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgment of that.’
She conceded that ‘a very serious mistake’ was made in handling complaints against Salmond and that this meant ‘two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost’.
While maintaining she was unaware this was happening, she said: ‘I am the head of the Scottish Government and so I want to take the opportunity to say sorry to the two women involved and to the wider public.’
From there, Sturgeon took us straight into the grit of the matter. She recounted the pivotal April 2018 meeting at her Glasgow home. Salmond, she relayed, had handed her a letter from the Scottish Government permanent secretary outlining the complaints against him.
‘Reading this letter is a moment in my life I will never forget,’ she confided. ’Although he denied the allegations, he gave me his account of one of the incidents complained of, which he said he had apologised for at the time. What he described constituted, in my view, deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part – another reason why that moment is embedded so strongly in my mind.’
Slipped in were behind-the-scenes tidbits about her history with Salmond. ‘He was a tough guy to work for,’ she told them. ‘He could be very challenging to work for.’ Sturgeon herself had intervened at times when she felt he was ‘crossing the line’.
His ego came up again in one of her most mordant observations.
‘Even in the days when we were besties, Alex Salmond has a tendency to see things as about him. I hope he takes that in the way it is intended.’ This was followed by a devastating eye roll that should be regulated under the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
The mood dropped to sub-zero when Jackie Baillie pulled her up on her government’s tardiness in providing documents.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt so frustrated in my 22 years of being on parliamentary committees as with this one,’ Baillie said. ‘We’ve waited for information from the Scottish Government. The stuff we’ve received has been partial. It’s been late. The complaints-handling phase was due in August, we received it in December. The legal advice has take two votes in parliament and a motion of no confidence in John Swinney before we saw it last night at six o’clock. Last night at six o’clock.’
Worse, Baillie continued, key information was ‘missing’ from the documents that were provided.
Emails relating to the legal advice made reference to meetings and consultations with external counsel for which no notes were handed over. What was she planning to do to fix this?
Sturgeon paused for a few seconds, her jaw locked. She is not used to being spoken to like this.
‘I’m not sure what you want me to do,’ she protested.
‘Give it to us,’ Baillie interjected.
Sturgeon fell back on the legal limits imposed by the Crown Office, but said she would ‘reflect seriously’ on Baillie’s frustrations.
‘The time for reflection has actually passed,’ the MSP rebuked her. ‘We’ve been asking for this information for months.’
Frustrations only grew when deputy convenor Margaret Mitchell got her turn. At the outset, Mitchell slipped up and referred to Salmond as ‘the First Minister’. There blew back an Arctic correction: ‘I am the First Minister’.
Mitchell circled a question about the timeline of the new complaints procedure four or five times but never quite managed to land it. The deputy convenor of the committee has been flying on fumes for some time now.
Eventually, she diverted elsewhere, remarking: ‘I’m not sure I’m going to get much further with this.’
‘I’m not sure I’m going to get much further with it, that’s for sure,’ Sturgeon snapped back.
Mitchell is a lawyer by training but her legal analysis is hindered by a linguistic barrier: she speaks complete sentences as a second language.
She attempted to interrogate an obviously baffled Sturgeon on the competence of the Scottish Government to investigate the complaints, then strayed into the question of complainants’ decision to take their complaints forward, then back again.
Inquiry convenor Linda Fabiani intervened and tried to split up the queries into separate — and coherent — points.
‘You’re just wrong,’ Mitchell dismissed her.
Fabiani tried again to move her on.
‘This is a crucially important point and you’re shutting it down,’ her deputy objected.
‘I’m not shutting it down.’ Fabiani’s voice tightened.
‘I appreciate you’re trying to be helpful but it’s confusing the issue,’ Mitchell shushed her.
It is hard to imagine this committee reaching a unanimous conclusion on where to order lunch from, let alone the questions in hand.
Nicola Sturgeon is pure political steel. Every artillery ricochets off her, every opponent must find a way around her. She makes the moves, she is never moved. Yesterday the tensile strength was undiluted.
She succeeded in casting doubt on parts of Salmond’s narrative. She did not succeed in removing the many doubts that linger about her own.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.