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Sturgeon and Salmond Debacle: What’s Been Happening and What Does It Mean For The Upcoming Scottish Parliamentary Election?

Alex Salmond, former leader of the SNP and former First Minister, was charged with 14 counts of sexual assault in 2019 – before being cleared by the High Court in 2020. The Scottish Government’s inquiry into the claims, some of which came from civil servants, was botched and forced to pay Salmond around £500,000 in legal fees.

The big question is when Sturgeon became aware of the claims against Salmond.

Sturgeon met Salmond in her home on the 2nd April 2018. She has repeatedly said that this was when she first learned of the accusations against him. However, she has since recalled that she met Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein on the 29th March 2018 in her office and discussed the claims then.

This week MSPs published a 192-page report about the government’s inquiry into Salmond – these are the main findings regarding Sturgeon and her government:

  • Sturgeon misled parliament – she denied giving Salmond the impression that she may interfere with the government’s inquiry on his behalf when they met at her home in April 2018, but evidence from witnesses indicates that she did imply the above.
  • It was “inappropriate” for Sturgeon to keep discussing the inquiry with Salmond after their April meeting due to the nature of the claims. It mentions five conversations and various WhatsApp messages from April-July 2018 exchanged between Salmond and his former protégé.
  • The government hindered the committee’s inquiry into Salmond as it was late in its provision of required documents.

She misled parliament – but did she break the ministerial code?

Calls for Sturgeon’s resignation had been flying earlier this month prior to the publishing of the above report. Such calls only carry weight if the First Minister is found to have broken this code. A separate report from James Hamilton, former Irish Director of Public Prosecutions, has specifically explored whether her misleading of parliament amounts to a breach of the ministerial code.

Published on the 22nd March 2021, it has cleared her of such a breach – this is a considerable development and disappointing for many opposition MSPs.

Hamilton states she did not “lie”, but rather had an unfortunate lapse in memory regarding her March 2018 meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff.

Sturgeon has expressed relief at this verdict and says she looks forward to re-submitting herself as a candidate for First Minister in May.

The SNPs dominance in Scottish politics is solid, but opposition parties have united against Sturgeon. Although their criticisms are of varying degrees of seriousness, each appear to be looking to use the fiasco to knock seats from the hands of Sturgeon’s party.  

The vote of no confidence – what was said?

Sturgeon won the motion (tabled by Conservative MSP Ruth Davidson) on the 23rd March 2021 – there were 65 no votes, 31 yes votes and 27 abstentions.

Willie Rennie, Scottish leader of the Liberal Democrats:

  • Drew attention to the Scottish government’s failure by the accusers against Salmond.
  • He emphasised that these women were left behind and that even those most loyal to the SNP must recognise this.
  • He also expressed support for exploring options for restoring faith in the complaints procedures.

Anas Sarwar, Scottish leader of the Labour Party:

  • Accused the tories of “game playing” and politicising a sexual harassment investigation.

Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party:

  • Condemned committee members for calling for Sturgeon’s recognition prior to her even giving evidence.

Alasdair Allan, MSP for the SNP:

  • Mentioned breaches by committee member(s) when they leaked details of the complaints against Salmond and of the personal details of one complainer.

Respect for the committee’s conduct and verdict is inconsistent, while confidence in Sturgeon and her government’s handling of the inquiry is extremely low among non-SNP MSPs.

John Swinney, deputy First Minister and SNP MP:

  • Acknowledged that himself and Sturgeon have let down parliament.
  • Drew attention to the culpability held by the member responsible for the committee leak.
  • Commended the committee’s work regarding improving harassment complaints procedures.
  • Criticised Tory MSPs Murdo Fraser and Ruth Davidson for tweeting that Sturgeon had “lied” before she had given any evidence to the committee.

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives called for Sturgeon’s resignation prior to the committee hearing her defence.

Swinney said these calls exhibited behaviour of “the lowest standard” he had seen during his parliamentary career.

Liz Smith, Conservative MSP closed the debate:

  • She highlighted the declining integrity of politicians overall.
  • She claimed the government is too powerful in comparison to parliament – as John Swinney and other SNP members shouted and jeered in disapproval, Smith said the matters “raised questions about the effectiveness of Holyrood”.
  • Scrutinising government on post-legislative matters needs to be facilitated better.

Scenes in the chamber were both sombre and rowdy.

As a relatively young body of governance, perhaps changes need to be made in terms of how the Scottish parliament is able to hold its government to account. Other MSPs cited biases in committee selection procedures as an issue raised by the saga.

What could all of this mean for the May election?

The SNP currently stand on 63 seats, just short of the 65 needed for a majority. No other party is likely to get anywhere close to this number – the Scottish Conservatives as the second largest party in the country won 31 seats in the last election almost five years ago.

Despite the negative publicity circling the SNP’s senior figures, polls suggest Sturgeon’s leadership and decision making during the pandemic has pleased voters more so than that in Westminster.

According to IPSOS MORI polls from the end of February, 52% say they are “likely to vote” for the SNP in May. The Scottish political climate has been dominated by the SNP for a few election cycles now, and it doesn’t look like this will change in 2021.

After the debate on the 23rd March, the Scottish Parliament has been suspended until after the new MSPs are elected.

Many at Holyrood are hoping recommendations made by the committee report will be upheld in the new Parliament, especially those regarding behavioural standards for staff and creating a culture in parliament where people feel free to come forward with complaints.

It has been a turbulent few months for Scottish politics. Only after voters take to the polls in May will we know the true extent of their influence on the SNP’s dominance.

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