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By Ben Guerin
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Explained: The Row Between Alex Salmond And Nicola Sturgeon That Threatens To Tear The SNP Apart

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are engaged in a bitter feud

7 min read

A very public feud between the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond has engulfed Scottish politics in recent months, PoliticsHome explains the background to the complex saga.

How Did It All Begin?

In August 2018, it was reported that a Scottish government investigation had been undertaken into two allegations of sexual harassment made against former SNP leader Alex Salmond by two civil servants relating to the period in which he was First Minister – claims which he has strongly denied and was acquitted of.

The investigation had been established under new rules brought in by current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in response to the #MeToo movement, and allowed for retrospective complaints to be investigated against former ministers.

But the Scottish government was later forced to admit the investigation was botched after Salmond took them to court, winning a judicial review.

In its ruling in January 2019, the court of session in Edinburgh concluded the government had acted unlawfully during the process and ordered that they cover Salmond's £500,000 legal fees. Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, admitted the process had been "tainted by apparent bias".

At a subsequent criminal trial last year, Salmond denied the sexual offence charges against him and was acquitted of all 14 of the charges.

Speaking on the steps of the Edinburgh court at the time, the former First Minister made it clear that his acquittal was not to be the end of the saga. 

"As many of you will know, there was certain evidence I would like to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we weren't able to do so,” he told reporters and supporters.

"At some point that information, that fact and that evidence will see the light of day but it won't be this day, for a very good reason."

Two Inquiries

Once the criminal trial had ended, work on two investigations into the handling of the process began to ramp up.

It is worth noting that neither of the subsequent government inquiries focus on the substance of the disputed complaints against Salmond, but are instead focussed solely on the Scottish government and Sturgeon's handling of the civil service investigation. 

The first inquiry was launched after Sturgeon referred herself under the ministerial code, with QC James Hamilton appointed to investigate whether she had breached the rules guiding the behaviour of ministers while the complaints were being addressed.  

Sturgeon has said it was important she was open to “full scrutiny” as he promised to answer questions from the inquiry, but added: “I do not consider that I misled parliament – but that is of course for others to judge.”

Unlike the wider probe, the Hamilton Inquiry has set out to answer a simple question, whether the First Minister misled parliament or interfered improperly in the investigation. While it is not set to report back for some time, its impact could be significantly more damaging for Sturgeon if it concludes she personally breached the rules.

As part of that, much focus has been placed on Sturgeon's initial claims to the Scottish Parliament that she first became aware of the allegations against her predecessor during a meeting with him in her home on 2 April 2018.

But in a written submission to the committee she later admitted she had held a meeting with Salmond's former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, on 29 March.

She subsequently said she had "forgotten" about the meeting, which she described as "fleeting" as a result of her busy schedule.

These claims that she had forgotten the meeting and only learned of the complaints during the meeting days later have been described by Salmond as "untenable".

The second inquiry, led by a Holyrood Committee, is investigating the Scottish government's handling of the complaints.

A number of senior political figures have already been called before the Holyrood committee, including Sturgeon's husband, Peter Murrell, who is also chief executive of the SNP.

Murrell has already faced accusations from opposition MPs of misleading the inquiry about his knowledge of meetings between Salmond and Sturgeon, while further scrutiny has been placed on a series of text messages he sent which spoke of "pressuring" for further police action.

But Murrell has denied the texts are proof of a "conspiracy" against Salmond, saying the messages were "out-of-character".  

And speaking to MSPs earlier this year he said he “absolutely refuted” any suggestion he had misled the committee or been untruthful.

In further written evidence he said the "shock, hurt and upset" caused by the announcement of the criminal charges had caused him to express himself poorly.

What’s happening With The Inquiries Now?

Progress on the inquiries have been significantly hampered by a series of legal battles relating to what documents are allowed to be published, and on the terms under which they are allowed to call witnesses.

On Monday, and after weeks of legal fights, two explosive evidence submissions from Salmond were released.

In the documents he made a series of damning claims about senior government officials and the SNP, accusing them of a "deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort" to "damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned".

In his second submission made to the Hamilton inquiry, he directly accused Sturgeon of several breaches of the ministerial code, and of making "simply untrue" statements to parliament about meetings the pair held in relation to the civil service investigation related to the complaints.

He added claims that there had been a "complete breakdown of the necessary barriers which should exist between the government, political party and the prosecution authorities".

Speaking ahead of the release, Sturgeon had sought to counter the claims, saying Salmond had failed to produce a "shred of evidence" for his accusations and insisting there had been no conspiracy either between the pair or against him.

But just hours later it was announced Salmond's second submissions which had already been published by the Scottish Government were going to be removed once again to undergo further redaction.

The document was later uploaded with around 500 words removed.

The decision caused Salmond to once again cancel his appearance before the committee, with his lawyers describing the decisions as a "significant surprise and concern", adding it would have had a "material bearing on whether he was able to attend the evidence session on Wednesday".

Further private meetings of the committee are set to be held this week to "discuss the implications of Mr Salmond's response and the next steps for its work".

What's At Stake For The SNP?

If the Hamilton Inquiry concludes that Sturgeon has broken the ministerial code she would come under intense pressure to step down as First Minister.

The impact of her removal on the SNP and their plans for Scottish independence are hard to quantify.

Just months away from the Scottish Parliament elections and with a series of polls showing sustained support for a second independence referendum, the party would be left rudderless and mired in controversy.

With much of the Scottish public showing high levels of support for First Minister Sturgeon and her handling of the pandemic, it could be a brutal end to her political career.

It would also be an extraordinary outcome for a party which, despite being in power for more than a decade in Scotland, has been noted for its ability to avoid internecine squabbles and power struggles.

But even if the inquiries conclude there is no evidence of wrong-doing, the rift between the two titans of Scottish politics over the last decade is certain to cause ongoing tensions within the party.

Whether the public sit up and take notice is more likely to depend on the conclusions from the Hamilton Inquiry, and whether Alex Salmond ever makes his bombshell appearance before the committee.

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