Scottish Daily Mail - - COMMENT - by Jonathan Brock­le­bank

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

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