My Orcadian Column 17/1/19

It may be an exaggeration to say that Nicola Sturgeon is fighting for her political life, but the deepening rupture with her long-time friend and political mentor, Alex Salmond has plunged her administration into crisis over the last few days.

At the heart of all this are two female civil servants who had the courage to come forward with serious allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Salmond.  Tragically, these two women now find that not only have they been let down by the Scottish Government’s mishandling of the internal investigation into their claims but they are also caught in the crossfire of an increasingly acrimonious feud within the SNP.

It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Court of Session ruled last week on the failings of the process used by the Scottish Government and not the substance of the allegations themselves. These remain the focus of a ‘live’ police investigation.

This important fact has been at risk lately of getting lost in the fog of political war, most of it of a ‘civil’ variety.

Yet the Court’s ruling was undeniably a victory for Mr Salmond, who lost no time in calling for the resignation of Scotland’s top civil servant and lodging a formal complaint about alleged ‘leaks’ to the media, which are now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Data Commissioner. 

Meanwhile, the current First Minister has found herself mired ever deeper in controversy amidst the fall-out from a court case that looks set to cost the taxpayer £500,000.  Having previously stated categorically that she had no involvement in the government’s internal investigation, Nicola Sturgeon revealed to parliament last week that she had spoken to Mr Salmond about the case on no fewer than five separate occasions between April and July last year.  I appreciate that Mr Salmond is not someone who takes kindly to being told ‘no’, but one wonders how long it takes to convey the simple message: “No, I cannot get involved.”

Ms Sturgeon’s claim that these discussions between current and former First Ministers about a government investigation into allegations made by two government officials were somehow not ‘government business,’ and therefore subject to the normal rules of formal minuting, is ludicrous. Indeed, by belatedly informing her Private Office that the first meeting had taken place at her home in Glasgow two months previously, Ms Sturgeon effectively admitted as much.  Why she then saw fit to discuss the matter with Mr Salmond on four further occasions is a question only she can answer.  It is an answer that will be of considerable interest to the Panel charged with looking into alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code, not to mention the parliamentary committee that also seems likely to be asked to inquire into this sorry mess.

By First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon looked distinctly uncomfortable, as did her ministers and backbenchers. This, of course, reflected the seriousness of the mistakes that have been made, but also the increasingly obvious divisions within the SNP, where loyalties between First Ministers past and present are taking a toll.

Over the weekend, these fault lines were exposed further as both sides got busy briefing the press. Team Salmond claimed that Nicola Sturgeon and her Chief of Staff had been economical with the truth about what they knew and when in relation to the allegations of sexual harassment. It was even suggested that this was a plot to prevent Mr Salmond making a political comeback.

In response, Nicola Sturgeon’s supporters cried foul, with a spokesman even asserting that the actions of Team Salmond amounted to “an attempt to smear the First Minister”. This is an astonishing state of affairs.

Both camps have since declared their intention to offer no further comment until the various investigations have concluded.  It remains to be seen whether this uneasy truce will hold.

Meanwhile, one can only imagine the anguish felt by the two women who have made the complaints against Mr Salmond. They deserve to have their allegations taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. Sadly, however, this sorry saga will have done nothing to encourage others in a similar position to take that step in future.


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