Nicola Sturgeon’s future as First Minister is hanging in the balance today over extraordinary claims she has broken strict rules and lied to parliament.
Two senior figures backed up many of Alex Salmond’s claims about her in explosive submissions to the Holyrood inquiry over the botched investigation into complaints about him.
One said that the 29 March meeting in the Scottish Parliament between Sturgeon and Salmond’s chief of – which the first minister claims to have ‘forgotten’ – was about the sex abuse allegations.
The other confirmed Salmond’ claim that one of Sturgeon’s aides named one of the accuser’s to the former first minister’s chief of staff –
The potentially devastating new evidence came as legal documents revealed the Scottish Government was warned that it was heading for defeat in its legal battle with Mr Salmond.
Lawyers told Miss Sturgeon’s administration the court fight against the former First Minister was doomed three months before he eventually won the case.
The warnings were shared with senior officials including the Lord Advocate, but the Government pressed on with the case.
The decision left taxpayers to pick up a bill of more than £500,000 when the investigation was branded ‘unlawful’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’ by the
‘Nicola Sturgeon must resign’
Nicola Sturgeon leaves her home this morning. She faces a grilling by the Scottish Parliament today over claims she misled Parliament about when she knew of sexual harassment allegations against her mentor and former first minister Alex Salmond
In six hours of brutal testimony last week, Alex Salmond laid out a case that senior SNP figures conspired to try to force him out of public life over harassment claims
Court of Session. The revelations pile pressure on Miss Sturgeon as she prepares to face a grilling from MSPs at the inquiry today, in a session expected to last at least five hours.
Last night, the Conservatives said they intend to call for a motion of no confidence in Miss Sturgeon at Holyrood, putting her career on the line.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: ‘Credible witnesses have now backed up Alex Salmond’s claims and the legal advice shows the Government knew months in advance that the judicial review was doomed but they still went on to waste more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.
‘There is no longer any doubt that Nicola Sturgeon lied to the Scottish parliament and broke the ministerial code on numerous counts.
‘No First Minister can be allowed to mislead the Scottish people and continue in office, especially when they have tried to cover up the truth and abused the power of their office in the process. The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. Nicola Sturgeon must resign.
What are the key issues in the row engulfing SNP?
How and why did the Scottish government mishandle allegations against Alex Salmond?
The Scottish government launched an investigation in 2017 after two women made formal complaints against Alex Salmond.
He launched legal action against the government’s handling of the investigation and won a judicial review in January 2019, receiving £512,000 to cover his legal fees.
The parliamentary inquiry is examining how ministers and civil servants conducted the probe.
Mr Salmond was charged with 13 counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape, but was acquitted of all charges in March 2020.
Mr Salmond has claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy by senior SNP figures to end his role in public life.
What did Nicola Sturgeon know and when?
Ms Sturgeon originally told MSPs she learned of complaints against Mr Salmond on April 2, 2018, when the pair met at her house.
That meeting is crucial as it is unclear whether it was SNP business, or government business – which should have been officially recorded.
Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP and Ms Sturgeon’s husband, initially said he was not at home, but later revealed that he arrived home during the discussion.
He insists he did not ask what they were talking about.
Ms Sturgeon has also admitted she ‘forgot’ about a discussion with Mr Salmond’s ex-chief of staff four days earlier where they talked about the issue.
The ministerial code says that ‘ministers who knowingly mislead the parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the First Minister’.
Ms Sturgeon is facing a separate independent investigation led by James Hamilton, who has to decide if she broke the ministerial code. However, it is thought that she is the final arbiter of whether the code has been breached.
Does Mr Salmond have evidence of a conspiracy against him?
Mr Salmond has said he is the victim of a ‘prolonged, malicious’ conspiracy by senior SNP and government figures.
He has suggested Mr Murrell was part of efforts to damage him.
Ms Sturgeon has demanded he presents hard evidence that is the case. However, he insisted that he is not in the dock and the government has already conceded it acted illegally.
Why was Mr Salmond’s evidence to the inquiry redacted?
Mr Salmond’s submission to the inquiry was released online on Monday, but the Crown Office raised concerns with Holyrood about it, asking for redactions.
He has raised questions about why the step was taken and whether it amounted to inappropriate interference.
‘No evidence she can provide tomorrow will counter the claims of numerous witnesses or refute that her Government ignored the legal advice for months and lost more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money in the process. We will be submitting a vote of no confidence in the First Minister.’
On a day of major developments, Duncan Hamilton, QC, challenged a series of Miss Sturgeon’s claims about her meetings with Mr Salmond and backed up the former SNP leader’s assertions.
In a ten-page submission, he confirmed that the April 2 meeting between Mr Salmond and Miss Sturgeon in her home had been arranged to discuss the Government probe into complaints – despite her claim in written evidence that she thought it was going to be about party business.
Mr Hamilton, a legal adviser to Mr Salmond, also confirmed the former First Minister’s claim that a senior Government official named one of the complainants to his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, in early March 2018.
He said that his evidence was given ‘to the very best’ of his recollection, adding: ‘I am prepared to provide the same evidence under oath in an affidavit if that is considered necessary.’
Mr Hamilton said he is aware of who the official is – and was told on a conference call which included former SNP spin doctor Kevin Pringle.
Speaking in parliament last week, Miss Sturgeon said that to ‘the very best of my knowledge, I do not think that happened’.
The First Minister has repeatedly insisted she believed the meeting was to discuss SNP business and this is why no official record was made.
But Mr Hamilton, who attended the meeting between Mr Salmond and Miss Sturgeon, said: ‘I was invited to that meeting and travelled to it along with Mr Salmond and Mr Aberdein. I would further note that the letter received from the Scottish Government [informing Mr Salmond of the Government probe] was the sole focus of the meeting.’
Mr Hamilton also backed up Mr Salmond’s claim that Miss Sturgeon offered to intervene in the investigation – as this was an ‘important aspect’ of discussions held at her home.
After leaving the meeting, Mr Hamilton said it was discussed with Mr Salmond and Mr Aberdein as they felt mediation ‘seemed very likely’. But he admitted that Miss Sturgeon later changed her mind.
He added: ‘I can confirm that the First Minister did offer to assist. We discussed mediation. My clear recollection is that her words were “if it comes to it, I will intervene”.
‘From a legal perspective, that was the most important aspect of the meeting. I therefore remember it clearly.’
Mr Hamilton said that Mr Salmond had waived his legal privilege to allow the submission backing up his side of events to be published.
The evidence submission made on the eve of Miss Sturgeon’s appearance at committee goes through several points made by Mr Salmond in relation to the meeting at the SNP leader’s home in April 2018.
He also confirmed that a meeting between Miss Sturgeon and Mr Aberdein in her parliamentary office on March 29 had been pre-planned to discuss the harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.
Mr Pringle, a former SNP director of communications, also wrote to the inquiry backing up key claims made by Mr Salmond. He said he could confirm, following conversations with Mr Aberdein, that he ‘is in no doubt that a complainant’s name was shared with him’ at a meeting about the complaints.
And he knows Mr Aberdein ‘was clear that the purpose of the meeting on March 29, 2018, was to discuss the two complaints that had been made against Mr Salmond’.
The Tories intend to submit the motion of no confidence to the parliamentary bureau today and want it to be debated as early as this afternoon or tomorrow.
A Scottish Labour spokesman said: ‘Nicola Sturgeon has serious questions to answer. We will give her the opportunity to present her evidence to the committee and answer those questions.’
A Scottish Liberal Democrat source said: ‘Our view is that this looks very serious for the First Minister, both in terms of the claims she has made about complainants’ names being leaked to Mr Salmond’s team and her Government’s handling of the judicial review but Nicola Sturgeon deserves her day to respond to these allegations before we decide what to do next.’
A spokesman for Miss Sturgeon said: ‘The First Minister will address all of the issues raised – and much more besides – at the committee tomorrow, while the independent adviser on the ministerial code will report in due course.
‘But to call a vote of no confidence in the middle of a pandemic, before hearing a single word of the First Minister’s evidence, is utterly irresponsible.
‘It is for the public to decide who they want to govern Scotland and – while we continue to fight the pandemic – with the election campaign starting in just 20 days, that is precisely what they will be able to do.’
The devastating proof that Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government chose to ignore it’s own legal advice
‘This presents a very real problem’
LAWYERS warned the Scottish Government was heading for defeat in its court battle with Alex Salmond more than three months before it lost the case.
In a major development which piles more pressure on Nicola Sturgeon, it emerged yesterday that they warned in September 2018 there was ‘a real risk that the court may be persuaded by the petitioner’s case in respect of the ground of challenge based on “procedural unfairness”.’
Legal advisers then informed officials on October 31 of a ‘very real problem’ which eventually led to Mr Salmond winning the case.
An ‘urgent note’ issued by senior counsel highlighted prior contact between the official who investigated complainants and a woman making the allegations.
Roddy Dunlop, QC, who wrote the note, said he had contacted the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe, QC, to alert him to his concerns, ‘and, frankly, as a sense check’. Mr Wolffe shared his concerns about the potential ‘repercussions’ for the case, he said. The legal advice was finally published last night after Deputy First Minister John Swinney had looked likely to lose a vote of no confidence tabled by the Tories.
Taxpayers were landed with a bill of more than £500,000 when the Scottish Government investigation into Mr Salmond was described as ‘unlawful’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’ by the Court of Session in January 2019.
An email sent to government officials by Mr Dunlop, now Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, at 10.50pm on October 31, said: ‘I have just discussed this with the Lord Advocate, as I am very concerned indeed. He has suggested a short note setting out my concerns, and this is now attached.
‘I am sorry to be sending this to you at all, let alone late at night on Halloween, but I’m afraid I see no other option.’
In a detailed report headed ‘URGENT note by senior counsel’, he explains that one of the complainers first made the complaint to Scottish Government HR official Judith Mackinnon, who went on to become the investigating officer in December 2017.
He says this is a ‘concern’ as the complaints procedure sets out there must be ‘no prior contact’.
He said: ‘I consider that this presents a very real problem indeed… If I am correct in the views expressed above, then the procedure was not followed: rather, an express embargo was ignored in a way which may well vitiate the entire proceedings.’
Mr Dunlop then goes on to add that ‘arguably that infects all that followed thereon’.
He said the Lord Advocate ‘has also indicated that he shares my firm advice that this issue will have to be disclosed, and my concern as to the potential repercussions for the wider case’.
Giving evidence to a Holyrood committee yesterday, James Wolffe QC (left) said he had recused himself from key decisions over the handling of allegations against Alex Salmond. John Swinney (right) has been accused of dragging his heels over releasing the legal advice
Mr Dunlop also said: ‘A swift decision is going to have to be taken on whether to concede (a) the issue is disclosed and any argument based thereon then resisted, or (b) the issue is disclosed and the petition then conceded as a result thereof.
‘I can well understand the angst that even suggesting (b) will provoke, but if the proceedings are vitiated then it makes little sense to continue to defend the indefensible.’
On December 6, 2018, legal advisers told ministers in their view the ‘least worst option’ would be to concede the petition. They wrote: ‘We cannot let the respondents sail forth into January’s hearing without the now very real risks of doing so being crystal clear to all concerned.’
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: ‘Despite the Scottish parliament backing two Scottish Conservative motions to release the legal advice, the SNP never even bothered to lift a finger to actually try and publish it.
‘It’s jaw-dropping that they didn’t even ask if the Lord Advocate would allow it to be published. Instead, they let the public and press think he was the block on its release, when it was SNP ministers all along.
‘John Swinney refused to even consider publishing the legal advice until his job was on the line.’
Mr Swinney said: ‘These documents are clear. Our legal advice was optimistic about the Government’s prospects for success at the start. It became gradually but progressively less optimistic over time. It was only in December that the advice concluded that our case was no longer stateable and we should concede. As late as December 11, ministers were advised that we should continue.’
He added: ‘Significantly, however, this comprehensively disproves claims that we had continued the case in defiance of legal advice.’
I have just discussed this with the Lord Advocate, as I am very concerned indeed. He has suggested a short note setting out my concerns, and this is now attached. I am sorry to be sending this to you at all, let alone late at night on Halloween, but I’m afraid I see no other option.
As presently advised, I consider that this presents a very real problem indeed… If I am correct in the views expressed above, then the procedure was not followed: rather, an express embargo was ignored in a way which may well vitiate the entire proceedings.
I can well understand the angst that even suggesting (conceding the case) will provoke, but if the proceedings are vitiated then it makes little sense to continue to defend the indefensible.