There is no feud like a family feud. It burns more intensely, is felt more keenly and generally proves far more resistant to efforts at mediation than disputes between those with no such close ties.
So it was that the simmering resentment between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond boiled over in spectacular fashion at the weekend, as the First Minister used a Sky interview to make a series of remarkable and deeply troubling accusations about her predecessor.
Leaving aside the historically close relationship between the two, which saw Alex Salmond act as a mentor to Nicola Sturgeon over a decade and more, these were truly astonishing revelations. For a current First Minister to accuse a former First Minister of asking them to “collude” in “covering up” allegations of serious sexual assault and attempted rape is truly exceptional and profoundly serious.
Indeed, listening to Ms Sturgeon’s interview on Sunday it was difficult to know why such allegations had not been made in a formal statement down at her local police station in Govan.
Mr Salmond’s response, predictably, was swift and caustic. His allies talked of “the ever-shifting sands of [Ms Sturgeon’s] story” and, referring to the parliamentary enquiry set up to consider the SNP government’s flawed handling of the original complaints made against the former First Minister, suggested “there is little point the First Minister pledging full co-operation with a parliamentary committee….only to complain about the inevitable scrutiny that involves”.
All this came at the end of a week of mounting pressure on Nicola Sturgeon about what she knew and when. Having originally claimed she first learned of the allegations in April 2018, Nicola Sturgeon now admits this was not true. It turns out she discussed the issue with Mr Salmond’s Chief of Staff in March that year, but was also aware of other complaints against her predecessor as far back as November 2017.
This is no mere detail, particularly for someone who justifiably prides herself on being a master of detail. The oversight led directly to the First Minister making misleading statements to parliament on two separate occasions in early 2019. Once is usually enough to end a ministerial career.
Meanwhile, Linda Fabiani, the SNP Convenor of the Committee responsible for scrutinising the government’s handling of the complaints against Mr Salmond has voiced exasperation at a continued lack of co-operation from Ms Sturgeon, her government and the SNP. This despite earlier promises by the First Minister to provide whatever evidence the Committee requested.
Nicola Sturgeon’s calculated escalation of the feud with Alex Salmond at the weekend was also prompted by growing pressure on her husband, Peter Murrell, who coincidentally happens to be the SNP’s Chief Executive. Leaked WhatsApp messages from Mr Murrell appeared to show him encouraging others to ‘pressure’ the police into investigating claims against Mr Salmond. This, in turn, has led Salmond supporters to call for Mr Murrell to be sacked and efforts are underway to bring this to a vote at the party’s conference next month.
The Sturgeon-Salmond fault line within the party has long been evident, but the ongoing process for selecting candidates for next year’s parliamentary elections has brought it to a head in constituencies and regions across the country. In the MSP coffee room at Holyrood, SNP colleagues talk openly about the contests they face, many from multiple challengers. The language used about party colleagues is often less than flattering, reflecting contests that have long since turned sour. In Cunninghame North, for example, SNP MSP, Kenneth Gibson, stands accused of bullying and inappropriate behaviour towards staff and volunteers, which has led to mass resignations and calls for him to be suspended.
Amidst all this, Margaret Ferrier, the former SNP MP who recklessly took a train to and from London, despite showing symptoms and later testing positive for Covid, has told the First Minister she has no intention of resigning.
All this within a party renowned for its ruthless discipline and intolerance of public dissent. Certainly, the First Minister can scarcely complain that opposition parties are distracting her from managing the current pandemic.
She will also be reflecting that, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you”.