The fall-out between the two titans of Scottish independence could have far-reaching consequences, says Maurice Smith
In contrast to the chaos at Westminster, the Scottish government had seemed a beacon of stability. Now an unlikely scandal involving her predecessor is threatening to undermine the reputation of Nicola Sturgeon as an unimpeachably safe pair of hands, and even bring her future as first minister into doubt.
What began as another new episode in the age of #MeToo – centred on allegations that Alex Salmond had made inappropriate approaches towards two female civil servants while he was first minister – has degenerated into a bitter wrangle involving the two leading Scottish nationalists. Salmond vigorously denies the allegations.
As the Scottish government’s official probe stalls, aides to the two have been throwing mud at each other via the media in a manner unprecedented for a party famous for its discipline. The alleged incidents took place at the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh in 2013, but complaints were made nearly five years later, after the new rules were introduced.
Sturgeon had met Salmond twice and discussed the allegations, after the formal probe had begun. The two also spoke three times by telephone. All this despite the first minister’s insistence she had played no part in the inquiry, which was led by permanent secretary, Leslie Evans.
Salmond protested that he had been denied due process, because he was not told the specifics of the allegations. A man who is still very popular within the independence movement, he raised £100,000 by crowd-funding for a judicial review of the government’s handling of the case. This month, he won his case at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, after the government admitted that it had broken its own rules. Put simply, a senior civil servant who had played a counselling role to the complainants had then taken charge of the investigation.
For Salmond, the case has not receded. Apart from the internal investigation, the allegations are being investigated by Police Scotland. But the case has opened an uncomfortable political chapter for the SNP. While critics had assumed that Sturgeon may have met Salmond in order to help him out of his situation, it seems that her camp was willing to use it to damage him politically.
The row stems from the leak of information to the Daily Record. Salmond supporters allege that Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s chief of staff, was behind it. The claim is being probed by the Information Commissioner’s Office, at Salmond’s instigation. Sturgeon insists she met Salmond in her capacity as party leader. At the meeting, in her Glasgow home and also attended by Lloyd, the allegations were discussed. Last weekend Sturgeon failed to attend her party’s national executive, which is believed to have recommended she refer her own case to the parliamentary standards office, an action taken the following day.
The Salmond side claimed that Lloyd used the fact of the inquiry in an attempt to dissuade Salmond from standing again as an SNP candidate. The former party leader lost his seat to the Conservatives in 2017. It was claimed that Lloyd raised this with a Salmond aide before the first meeting with Sturgeon. That elicited a furious response from the Scottish government, whose spokesman suggested the Salmond camp was attempting to ‘smear’ the first minister.
Respected party figure, Kevin Pringle, who worked for both Salmond and Sturgeon over two decades, commented: ‘The reputational damage to the SNP administration could be incalculable.’ The row has raised issues that simmered previously, for example the role of the first minister’s husband, Peter Murrell, who also happens to be chief executive of the SNP. Sturgeon resisted suggestions that he should step aside when she swept unopposed to the leadership left vacant by Salmond after the 2014 referendum.
The other problem for the SNP is that while it remains the biggest party at Holyrood, it lost its overall majority in 2016. That means a newly enervated opposition could win a vote of no confidence. Opposition party leaders will force a parliamentary inquiry into Sturgeon’s handling of the affair.
All of this comes at a bad time for the SNP. With so many options possible in British politics over the coming months – Brexit or a possible general election, for example – the SNP could enter a campaign while embroiled in this bitter and very public row. Salmond represents the wing of the party that wants an early second referendum on independence, whereas Sturgeon is famously cautious.
Normally sure-footed, the first minister seemed unusually reticent during a parliamentary statement on the collapse of the court case. Her greatest crisis involves the man she understudied as deputy first minister for so long, a rift that is captivating Scottish politics. Not long ago the prospect of Nicola Sturgeon’s downfall seemed an unlikely scenario. Today its possibility is being talked about openly in Scottish political circles.