Sal­mond scan­dal could bring down Ni­cola Stur­geon as First Min­is­ter

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS - By Paul Hutcheon

ONE of the hall­marks of Alex Sal­mond’s two decades in charge of the SNP was his abil­ity to en­cour­age tal­ented younger mem­bers.

Jus­tice Sec­re­tary Humza Yousaf, for­mer SNP West­min­ster leader An­gus Robert­son, ad­vo­cate Dun­can Hamil­ton and lob­by­ist An­drew Wil­son were all Sal­mond pro­teges who have made their mark in pub­lic life.

But Ni­cola Stur­geon, who has known Sal­mond for nearly 30 years, was al­ways her men­tor’s pre­ferred suc­ces­sor. Both shared the same so­cial demo­cratic ethos and be­lief in mak­ing grad­ual steps t owards i nde­pen­dence. Even t he dra­matic events in 2004, when Sal­mond el­bowed her out of the way so that he could re­gain the SNP lead­er­ship, worked to her ad­van­tage.

Sal­mond’s de­ci­sion to up­stage Stur­geon back then helped her enor­mously. She gained in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence as his party deputy for 10 years and as his num­ber two in Gov­ern­ment. By the time Sal­mond quit in 2014, she was the ob­vi­ous choice to suc­ceed him.

That close re­la­tion­ship is now dead, killed by a botched Gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion into claims Sal­mond sex­u­ally ha­rassed fe­male civil ser­vants. Last week’s hear­ing at the Court of Ses­sion, where the Gov­ern­ment probe was de­clared il­le­gal, has frac­tured the SNP in a way that never seemed pos­si­ble.

Sal­mond’s al­lies be­lieve Gov­ern­ment fig­ures, through leaks of dam­ag­ing al­le­ga­tions, tried to wound him. Oth­ers are of the view Sal­mond is a bit­ter man who won’t rest un­til he has an­swers and scalps. One thing can be said with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Sal­mond’s court vic­tory was not a judg­ment on the al­le­ga­tions he faces. Po­lice Scot­land will in­ves­ti­gate the claims against him. The women who made the com­plaints were let down by the Gov­ern­ment, but it is hard to imag­ine de­tec­tives do­ing any­thing other than a rig­or­ous job.

It is equally true that Stur­geon’s lead­er­ship is more vul­ner­a­ble than at any point since she took over. Four years ago she was the “rock star” leader who ad­dressed 12,000 party sup­port­ers at the Glas­gow Hy­dro. It is not in­con­ceiv­able, one of her back­ers told me this week, that she could now be forced out of of­fice.

Con­sider the dif­fer­ent strands of this scan­dal. The flawed Gov­ern­ment probe, based on the in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer hav­ing prior con­tact with the com­plainants, does not jeop­ar­dise her lead­er­ship. It raises se­ri­ous ques­tions about the com­pe­tence of the Gov­ern­ment, but not for her per­son­ally.

How­ever, her in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­ci­sion to meet Sal­mond on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions dur­ing a live mis­con­duct probe is an ice­berg that is mov­ing into view. Her de­ci­sion will likely be poured over by var­i­ous in­quiries, fol­lowed by ev­i­dence ses­sions and the drip-drip of who said what at the so-called “party” sum­mits at her house. Ex­pect this to drag on for months.

And then there is the as­pect that re­ally winds up Sal­mond. Who leaked de­tails of the Gov­ern­ment probe to the Daily Record in Au­gust? On the day in ques­tion, the Gov­ern­ment wanted to make an an­nounce­ment on the in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion but Sal­mond, who de­nies the al­le­ga­tions, was un­en­thu­si­as­tic.

His sup­port­ers saw sub­se­quent leaks as a ma­li­cious at­tempt to de­stroy his rep­u­ta­tion and they are de­ter­mined to un­cover the mole.

It is not hard to imag­ine how a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry might han­dle this toxic el­e­ment of the story. Any Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial called to give ev­i­dence could be asked: did you speak to the Daily Record on the day the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished on­line? Any con­fir­ma­tion that a Gov­ern­ment staffer even con­firmed de­tails of the case would be a night­mare for Stur­geon.

The wider is­sue is where power lies in the in­de­pen­dence move­ment. Sal­mond was rightly crit­i­cised for ask­ing or­di­nary folk to make do­na­tions to his le­gal fees, but it was telling that so many Yessers dug deep for him within 24 hours. It is dif­fi­cult to think of many politi­cians who com­mand such loy­alty.

And look at the SNP heavy­weights who have in­ter­vened since Au­gust. Noel Dolan, who is not be­lieved to be the big­gest fan of Sal­mond’s po­lit­i­cal style, said he ex­pected the for­mer First Min­is­ter to be “cleared” and crit­i­cised the Gov­ern­ment’s top civil ser­vant Les­lie Evans. Dolan was eas­ily Stur­geon’s clos­est ad­viser in Gov­ern­ment un­til he re­tired. Tri­cia Mar­wick, a key ad­viser for Stur­geon dur­ing her aborted lead­er­ship bid in 2004, ac­com­pa­nied Sal­mond to court last week. Kenny MacAskill, who was go­ing to be Stur­geon’s run­ning mate be­fore she pulled out of the con­test 14 years ago, was also by the for­mer First Min­is­ter’s side. Sal­mond’s sup­port within the party runs deeper than acolytes and helpers.

The rift also pre-dates the Gov­ern­ment probe into Sal­mond’s al­leged con­duct and in­cludes dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Stur­geon’s per­for­mance as First Min­is­ter.

Some of his back­ers be­lieve she lacks vi­sion, has poor links with the busi­ness com­mu­nity, and are frus­trated by her cau­tious ap­proach to a se­cond in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum. They feel he could do bet­ter.

There are al­ready mut­ter­ings about a Sal­mond come­back, sub­ject to him be­ing read­mit­ted to the party. One source said he could con­test the nom­i­na­tion for the Holy­rood seat in Aberdeen­shire East, cur­rently held by Na­tion­al­ist Gil­lian Martin. An­other in­sider said the seat in Aberdeen Don­side, cur­rently held by in­de­pen­dent MSP Mark McDon­ald, would need an SNP can­di­date in two years. MP Joanna Cherry last week “liked” a tweet which called for him to be “back at the helm” of the SNP.

Mean­while, given the daily hor­ror sto­ries about the state of pub­lic ser­vices, Stur­geon can hardly fall back on her do­mes­tic pol­icy record. The First Min­is­ter said in Novem­ber the strat­egy for se­cur­ing an­other ref­er­en­dum might be to win the next Holy­rood elec­tion. The ques­tion is whether she will be in post to make that case.

Stur­geon’s in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­ci­sion to meet Sal­mond on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions dur­ing a live mis­con­duct probe is an ice­berg that is mov­ing into view

First Min­is­ter Ni­cola Stur­geon’s lead­er­ship is more vul­ner­a­ble than at any other point since she took over as leader

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