Has Te­flon Ni­cola fi­nally come un­stuck by her own septem hor­ri­bilis?*

Scottish Daily Mail - - News -

THE Na­tion­al­ists have never had a week like last week. Not when they freed Me­grahi. Not when the vot­ers ditched a third of their MPs. Not even when they lost the ref­er­en­dum. Ni­cola Stur­geon’s septem hor­ri­bilis was the low­est point thus far in the SNP’s 11-year reign.

It be­gan last Tues­day when the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment was forced to con­cede at the Court of Ses­sion that it had acted im­prop­erly in its han­dling of sex­ual mis­con­duct al­le­ga­tions against Alex Salmond. Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary Les­lie Evans over­saw the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and Lord Pent­land, pre­sid­ing in a ju­di­cial re­view se­cured by the for­mer first min­is­ter, de­creed that her probe was ‘un­law­ful’, ‘pro­ce­du­rally un­fair’ and ‘tainted by ap­par­ent bias’.

That judg­ment lit a fuse that leads we still don’t know where but the alarms are ring­ing through­out the cor­ri­dors of pow­ers. In the past seven days we have learned that Ni­cola Stur­geon, who claims she didn’t in­ter­vene in the Salmond probe, met him three times and had two phone con­ver­sa­tions with him in the course of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Miss Stur­geon did not im­me­di­ately in­form the Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary of the first meet­ing, which she posits was not gov­ern­ment busi­ness but was at­tended by her chief of staff Liz Lloyd, a gov­ern­ment em­ployee. Miss Stur­geon yes­ter­day re­ferred her­self for in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a pos­si­ble breach of the min­is­te­rial code.

Scan­dal

De­tails of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion were then leaked to a news­pa­per by per­sons un­known, an ac­tion now the sub­ject of a crim­i­nal probe by the In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sion­ers’ Of­fice. Op­po­si­tion MSPs at Holy­rood are de­mand­ing a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry into how the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment blun­dered the in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with an es­ti­mated cost to tax­pay­ers of half a mil­lion pounds.

Mr Salmond has yet to con­firm whether he will sue for dam­ages. The al­le­ga­tions against him re­main the sub­ject of po­lice con­sid­er­a­tion.

This might be the big­gest scan­dal since the Holy­rood build­ing fi­asco and when the fuse fi­nally det­o­nates, some­one’s ca­reer is go­ing up in smoke. There are re­ports that the Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary could go, but Miss Stur­geon’s gov­ern­ment would look like the mafia throw­ing its weak­est mem­ber to the G-men.

The pro­bity of the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment is para­mount but the hu­man di­men­sion is no less com­pelling. Stroll around the Holy­rood gos­sip fac­tory and you will hear schaden­freude. Brute po­lit­i­cal as­sas­sins now find them­selves in the fir­ing line. You will also hear re­lief. Fi­nally, a scan­dal seems to be stick­ing to the Te­flon First Min­is­ter.

More com­monly, though, and the farther you get from the me­dia tower, the talk is of sad­ness. How­ever this ends, lives will have been ru­ined, ca­reers im­ploded and fam­i­lies put through hell. There are two women who say they were the vic­tims of sex­ual mis­con­duct by the most pow­er­ful man in the land. If their al­le­ga­tions are true, they have been grossly mal­treated and their cases han­dled so in­eptly their trauma can only have grown.

The man who stands ac­cused has been un­law­fully in­ves­ti­gated by the gov­ern­ment he once led and his name pub­licly as­so­ci­ated with grave acts through­out a lengthy po­lice in­quiry. If, as he in­sists, there is no case to an­swer, he has been treated griev­ously.

For the SNP, its two big­gest beasts are now pit­ted against one an­other, the most suc­cess­ful leader of the party ver­sus the one it hopes will lead it to its goal of in­de­pen­dence. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that, to­gether, they made his­tory, tak­ing a sep­a­ratist move­ment into gov­ern­ment and fash­ion­ing from it a new es­tab­lish­ment whose in­flu­ence stretches from the third sec­tor to academia and from the arts to the me­dia.

Theirs was an equal part­ner­ship and a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial one. Alex Salmond took his pro­tégée from rent-a-quote list MSP to deputy leader of the SNP and deputy first min­is­ter of Scot­land. She helped him win the votes of women and the Left, who didn’t trust his low-tax, pro-busi­ness in­stincts.

She was in­stru­men­tal in pick­ing up votes in the West of Scot­land dur­ing the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum. Each of them is as cold-blooded as the other but, raw as emo­tions are, both will mourn a friend­ship now surely un­re­cov­er­able.

Among SNP mem­bers, there is dis­quiet and some ran­cour. Those who still hold Mr Salmond in great af­fec­tion be­lieve Miss Stur­geon has thrown him un­der the bus – or at least chucked him off at the side of the road. On the para­noid wing of the SNP – such peo­ple are nu­mer­ous enough to con­sti­tute their own wing – the al­le­ga­tions are of a West­min­ster and/or me­dia plot. These mem­bers are con­fused and an­gry that Miss Stur­geon is go­ing along with the con­spir­acy.

The First Min­is­ter’s back­ers speak of the for­mer first min­is­ter with undis­guised con­tempt. He is ar­ro­gant, full of blus­ter and pan­der­ing to the worst of the mem­ber­ship. Most an­noy­ingly, Mr Salmond ap­pears to have some high-pro­file Na­tion­al­ists on side. West­min­ster home af­fairs spokesman Joanna Cherry last week tweeted ‘Good news’ over a re­port that Mr Salmond was plan­ning to re­join the SNP and ‘liked’ a tweet that en­dorsed his re­turn to the party lead­er­ship.

Bat­tle lines are be­ing drawn. Back­benchers openly grum­ble about Miss Stur­geon’s fail­ure to seize the op­por­tu­nity of Brexit and her oth­er­wise lack­lus­tre pol­icy agenda. Queen Ni­cola the Un­ques­tion­able is fac­ing in­ter­nal dis­sent and the dis­senters have a point.

Al­ready in her fifth year in Bute House, she has amassed less of a legacy than Gor­don Brown man­aged in three years at Num­ber 10. The op­por­tu­ni­ties to point this out to her have been few as she sur­rounds her­self with a small clique of mid-ca­reer burn-outs and pos­i­tive re­in­forcers. We have a First Min­is­ter who gov­erns from her own safe space.

Head­lines declar­ing an SNP ‘civil war’ are over­heated but cracks are open­ing up and there is no ob­vi­ous way for Miss Stur­geon to fill them. She can­not pivot to pol­icy be­cause she is light there and nor can she turn her talk to SNP de­liv­ery be­cause the record is dis­mal. Launch­ing a war on the op­po­si­tion – per­haps trawl­ing To­ries’ so­cial me­dia for du­bi­ous com­ments – might dis­tract the Press but Ruth David­son’s ab­sence on ma­ter­nity leave com­pli­cates mat­ters.

Cal­lous

What she cer­tainly can­not do is de­mand a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence. Not just be­cause Theresa May would refuse and not even be­cause the polls say she would lose again. Call­ing for an­other plebiscite be­fore the Salmond scan­dal is re­solved would look like – and would be – an act of cal­lous, tacky des­per­a­tion.

Miss Stur­geon has nowhere to turn and can only hope to ride this thing out with min­i­mal dam­age to her po­si­tion and that of the party. That might not be pos­si­ble given the ris­ing ten­sions in a party once no­to­ri­ous for its North Korean-style loy­alty cult.

An SNP source tells me: ‘Stur­geon has the party ma­chine and the sen­si­ble peo­ple on her side. Salmond still com­mands loy­alty in the grass­roots and some back­benchers. The party di­vide used to be fundies ver­sus grad­u­al­ists, now it’s in­ner cir­cle fight­ing off zoomers, with or­di­nary mem­bers caught in the mid­dle. That said, the in­ner cir­cle is too tight and ex­cludes too many and we’re see­ing the con­se­quences of that now.’

The two peo­ple who made the SNP the elec­toral ti­tan it is haven’t spo­ken in five months. Na­tion­al­ist politi­cians are nail­ing their colours in pub­lic while be­hind the scenes aides skulk around with knives in search of col­leagues’ backs.

No, it’s not yet a civil war but nor is it a party ca­pa­ble of run­ning a coun­try. That’s the other hu­man cost of this ugly mess: a gov­ern­ment al­ready fail­ing pa­tients and pupils be­cause it be­came too wrapped up in con­sti­tu­tional pol­i­tics is now too wrapped up in it­self to mend its ways. That fuse leads to the rest of us too. * A hor­ri­ble week

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