Cleared of all sexual assault charges, he’s spent lockdown plotting vengeance on those he believes tried to engineer his downfall. As Nicola Sturgeon prepares to confront her old mentor at a Holyrood inquiry, the inside story of the bitter civil war that could destroy the SNP
ON the day Britain went into lockdown, Alex Salmond put his former protegee Nicola Sturgeon and her party on notice. He had just endured the most searing experience of his political life – a criminal trial in which a catalogue of civil servants and party workers accused him of sexually assaulting them when he was First Minister.
The jury acquitted him on all charges. As he stood drained but defiant outside the High Court in Edinburgh, he warned of a reckoning. He spoke of ‘certain evidence’ that his team were stopped from presenting in court – evidence, he believes, of a conspiracy against him in the ranks of the party he had led to power.
‘Those facts will see the light,’ he said, ‘but it won’t be this day.’
His successor as First Minister has already indicated that, when news of the verdicts came through on March 23, she was too immersed in leading Scotland’s response to coronavirus to dwell overmuch on the fate of her former boss.
But she will undoubtedly have marked his words and, in quieter moments, reflected on them soberly.
Five months on, the day of reckoning is at hand. And the scale of the threat posed by a fulminating Mr Salmond both to his former party and its leader is hard to underestimate.
From his circle, there are dark warnings about devastating documents in his possession which could fatally hole the Scottish Government.
He is working on a book – the gospel according to Alex Salmond on the alleged plot within the SNP to ensure his days in elected politics were over.
And, providing a ready battlefield for the bloodletting, there is the inquiry into the Government’s handling of the complaints against Mr Salmond, which calls its first witness on Tuesday, August 18.
It will hear evidence, under oath, from the former First Minister and the current one. Other witnesses include Miss Sturgeon’s husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd.
THE hearing will feature a very different Mr Salmond from the one who sat bleakly in the dock as his accusers talked – and it will not just be because he has shed three stones in lockdown thanks to a strict diet and jogging regime.
No, the key difference here is that he is no longer on the defensive.
With no threat of criminal convictions hanging over him, no spectre of jail time or the disgrace that would have entailed, Mr Salmond will be on the attack, fired up with the self-righteous fury that has burned in him since the beginning of this sorry saga.
‘How dare they?’ he will surely have asked himself many times. Were it not for him, the SNP would likely be nowhere, Miss Sturgeon a minor player on the political scene. Those years of power, that shot at independence, this surge in support for his lifetime’s political aim – it all came from him.
And this is how they thank him: a grubby attempt to disgrace him which could have put him behind bars.
Yet Miss Sturgeon, who has likened the dissolution of her relationship with her former mentor to a grieving process, might well ask a different question: how dare he?
How dare this ocean-going egotist huff and puff like some big bad wolf drunk on conspiracy theories after all that was heard in the High Court this year?
Was it not Mr Salmond’s own brief, Gordon Jackson, QC, who told the jury: ‘If in some ways the former First Minister had been a better man, I wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be here, none of us would be here.’?
Did Mr Salmond himself not admit to apologising to one female worker for his behaviour in a Bute House bedroom, and to consensual sexual activity with another? Was it not he who admitted that, on reflection, maybe he was too tactile, maybe he did make female staff feel uncomfortable?
He may have left the dock a free man with no convictions for sexual assault to his name but he certainly did not leave it a saint. Yet here he is, bent on settling scores.
Should the First Minister, then, be worried?
Assuredly she should, say parliamentary sources. Not only for her own position but also for the civil war the inquiry could trigger in her party.
Though Miss Sturgeon’s attention was understandably elsewhere at the time, one clue to the trouble she faces came on March 18, when Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, was giving evidence at the High Court.
Mr Jackson appeared to have asked all his questions but was beckoned over by his client, who clearly had other ideas.
Returning to the lectern, Mr Jackson asked the witness about a meeting involving himself, Miss Sturgeon and a member of her staff in her parliamentary office on March 29, 2018 – a meeting Mr Aberdein confirmed took place.
Crucially, Miss Sturgeon had already told MSPs in the Holyrood debating chamber that she knew nothing of the sexual harassment allegations faced by Mr Salmond until he visited her home and told her himself four days later on April 2.
If that were the case, then what was spoken about with Geoff Aberdein?
The question was never asked in court, but one account of that meeting, from an anonymous source, indicates that it was indeed about the Salmond
investigation. if that is the case, then Miss Sturgeon already knew of the investigation by the time Mr Salmond visited her home and, therefore, for whatever reason, she misled parliament.
But the court episode is illuminating for another reason. Mr Salmond appears to have instructed his counsel to ask the question about the March 29 meeting.
EVen as he battled to clear his name, then, it seems he had Miss Sturgeon in his sights. That is merely one prong of the Salmond attack.
The First Minister could be wounded by others, too. Such as this line of inquiry: if there was a plot to destroy Mr Salmond, was she in on it?
And, if it were to be established that members of her retinue certainly were involved in such a pursuit, could it be credible that their boss knew nothing about it?
For Miss Sturgeon’s part, she dismisses talk of a conspiracy as ‘a heap of nonsense’ and promises, in the fulness of time, ‘to elaborate on that view’. But it is no secret that her relationship with Mr Salmond had soured badly by 2018.
An increasingly loose cannon since losing his gordon seat in the 2017 general election, Mr Salmond’s off-colour jokes and off-message views on a second independence referendum were becoming an embarrassment to her – not to mention his TV show on the RT channel, which is subsidised by the Kremlin.
What might have been the First Minister’s reaction, then, in early 2018, when it was mooted Mr Salmond might stand in an Aberdeen Donside by-election if the sitting MSP Mark McDonald stood down, as he was being urged to do over claims of inappropriate behaviour?
Were Mr Salmond to have returned to Holyrood, could Miss Sturgeon in all sincerity have welcomed his presence?
These questions, potentially devastating ones for her already bitterly divided party, may now have to be answered.
And therein lies the third source of danger for Miss Sturgeon. For even if she should wriggle out of Mr Salmond’s firing line, others close to her will not.
Senior figures in her own party accused Mr Salmond of being a sex pest, after all.
High-ranking civil servants suggested there was a rule during his time at Bute House that female staff were not to be left alone in his company late at night – a claim the former First Minister’s team vehemently denied.
WHeRe do these claims come from, supporters of Mr Salmond ask, if not from a concerted attempt to discredit him? And if that is what was happening, then airing evidence which appears to confirm it will only deepen the divide between Sturgeon and Salmond loyalists.
As one parliamentary source put it: ‘if Salmond is able to demonstrate evidence that there was a conspiracy against him and Sturgeon’s own staff were at the centre of it, then from a parliamentary perspective it may not be so damaging for Sturgeon individually, but from a party perspective it could be all the more damaging.
‘The SnP could be absolutely at war over it.’
The Holyrood inquiry, conducted by a specially convened MSP group called the Committee on the Scottish government Handling of Harassment Complaints, will examine the events which followed a 2017 decision to overhaul procedures for investigating complaints from civil servants against Scottish ministers.
it was Miss Sturgeon’s view that the new guidelines should include powers not only to examine complaints against current ministers, but former ones, too.
in a note to the Scottish government’s permanent secretary, leslie evans, she wrote: ‘i would like you to consider ways in which we are able to address, if necessary, any concerns from staff – should any be raised – about the conduct of current Scottish government ministers and also former ministers, including from previous administrations, regardless of party.’
She continued: ‘While i appreciate that the conduct of former ministers would not be covered by the current ministerial code, i think it fair and reasonable that any complaints raised about their actions while they held office are considered against the standards expected of ministers.’ Within weeks of these procedures being overhauled – and their scope widened to include former ministers – it emerged that two women had come forward alleging sexual assaults by Mr Salmond during his time as First Minister. Was this, as he is said to believe, a trap – a rewriting of government procedures specifically geared to ensnare him? One close associate of the former First Minister this week confirmed this certainly remained Mr Salmond’s view and that, circumstantially at least, it was backed up by documents in the former First Minister’s possession. ‘The documents demonstrated how the process had been totally compromised,’ the associate said. ‘They showed complaints had been canvassed and that the new procedure was sent to potential complainers weeks before it was brought into effect.’
AlSO, the associate said, the documents revealed that complainants were told who the investigating officer would be if they went ahead with their grievances.
They are also said to show that, at various times, complainants indicated they did not want to proceed.
‘The documents show the new procedure was being drafted within the civil service weeks before it was actually commissioned by the First Minister on november 20, 2017,’ the source said. ‘And the process was well under way before it was approved on December 22, 2017.
‘if it was never actually published until February 2018, how did these women know to complain before that? Alex’s view is the whole thing was cooked up to stop him coming back. He’s very bruised and very angry.’
A spokesman for the Scottish parliament said the first phase of the inquiry would focus on the ‘development of the policy’ and ‘the handling of complaints’.
even if Mr Salmond’s suspicions prove entirely unfounded, this chapter will inevitably prove embarrassing for all involved in its development, because it has already resulted in a judicial review and an admission by the government that it breached its own guidelines.
That sprang from the appointment of Judith Mackinnon as the investigating officer – and the subsequent revelation that she had discussed both cases with both women weeks before they formally lodged their complaints.
The government’s own rules expressly stated there should be no prior involvement between the investigator and the complainers.
By now Mr Salmond had quit his SnP membership and brought legal action against the government his
successor led, raising a judicial review of what he said was an inherently unfair complaints handling process at the Court of Session.
And it was the blunder surrounding the appointment of the investigator which ensured Mr Salmond his victory and £512,000 of taxpayers’ money footed by the Government to cover his legal fees.
At that point the focus of his ire was Miss Evans, the Scottish Government’s most senior civil servant, who he said was responsible for an ‘abject humiliation’ of her employers. He repeatedly called for her to go.
She did not – and Miss Sturgeon continued to have ‘full confidence’ in her.
Phase two of the committee’s inquiry will focus on this judicial review while the final phase will deal with ‘actions taken in relation to the Scottish Ministerial Code’.
Included in this chapter, inevitably, will be Miss Sturgeon’s curious declaration to
MSPs that she knew nothing of the complaints against Mr Salmond until he told her of them personally at her home on April 2, 2018. She agreed to meet him there, she said, because Mr Salmond had said that ‘he wanted to come and tell me something I needed to know in my role as party leader’.
If Miss Sturgeon already knew of the allegations by the time Mr Salmond visited her, it is intriguing, to say the least, that she should deny it. Not just that, it would be a breach of the Ministerial Code and highly embarrassing for her.
But, ask the more judicious voices in her party, is this really what Mr Salmond wants? To spark civil war in the SNP ranks and have his successor pay the ultimate price for his humiliation in the High Court?
In short, is he really prepared to rain hellfire over all he has built in the name of revenge? To be sure, many Unionists would will him on every step of the way. ‘I honestly don’t know,’ says a source close to him. ‘He might have been mad as hell with Nicola but might have taken a step back and thought, “Am I going to bring the whole thing down?”. I don’t think anyone knows but him.’
Alex Neil MSP, not perhaps the most ardent cheerleader for Miss Sturgeon on the SNP benches, takes the claim of an SNP plot to ‘do in’ Mr Salmond seriously enough to call for a judge-led inquiry.
HE said: ‘The question will be, is there anything coming out of the parliamentary inquiry which will basically force the Government’s hand into holding a judicial inquiry? ‘I’m not saying Alex is right or Alex is wrong. What I’m saying is, a former First Minister has made this very serious allegation about a conspiracy and, clearly, some organs of the state, particularly the civil service and the Crown Office, had to be involved in such a conspiracy. Given that the allegation has been made, I think that justifies a judicial-led inquiry to find out if it is true because we don’t want to live in a society where the civil service or the Crown Office or the wider justice system can be abused for political ends.’
Of the former First Minister under whom he served for two years as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, he says: ‘I don’t know if or when he’s going to reapply for membership [of the SNP].
‘Clearly one hopes that we can get to the bottom of this and put it behind us, particularly before we go into the election campaign next year.
‘But I think clearly there are questions to be answered and I think we are better to have these matters resolved and get to the bottom of them so that everybody can then move on.’
What will be the state of the party by the time its two totemic figures are each ready to move on?
There are those in its ranks who hardly dare to imagine.
On the attack: Alex Salmond is said to have documents that could devastate the government of Nicola Sturgeon