Will this go down as moment her edifice started to crumble?
THE shambles of the Alex Salmond affair has provided growing evidence that Nicola Sturgeon’s Government is no longer fit for purpose. It has the First Minister with the biggest crisis of her time in office. And it seriously brings into question how long her administration can survive.
Big claims – but justified based on the fiasco of the past seven days because the failings exposed by this tawdry affair are not oneoffs. Rather, they are central to the widening cracks within Ms Sturgeon’s Government.
To begin with, there is the basic incompetence.
When the SNP came to power 12 long years ago, the party prided itself on its professionalism.
After the accident-prone tenure of Labour in the early years of devolution, the SNP promised to bring back competence and pride to government in Scotland.
A dozen years on, the Sturgeon administration would be laughed out of town if it tried to make the same claim – and this affair has demonstrated why.
You might think that a government faced with allegations of sexual harassment by the former first minister of Scotland would tread carefully.
You might expect it would prepare for a legal challenge. You would be wrong.
We discovered last week that the civil servant tasked with leading the inquiry had, unbelievably, had prior contact with the complainants.
Indeed, Mr Salmond’s lawyers even claimed this civil servant had encouraged the women to come forward.
Ms Sturgeon’s decision to meet Mr Salmond in a series of five private audiences further brought the impartiality of the case into question.
It allowed the former first minister’s legal team to tear the case to pieces.
The result is that two government employees who presented complaints about Mr Salmond have been unforgivably let down – and the taxpayer is at least half a million pounds worse off.
IT revealed a government that is making things up as it goes along. Then there is the other thing this scandal has exposed – how, under the SNP, the line between government business and party interests has been erased almost entirely. Over the past week, it has been obvious to just about everyone in Scotland that Ms Sturgeon’s meetings last year with Mr Salmond to discuss the complaints against him were government business.
They were, after all, discussing a government inquiry, brought by government employees, into the former head of the government.
Indeed, with her admission to me during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, that her own chief of staff was present at the first of these discussions, a threshold was crossed in establishing that this was indeed a government business meeting.
Yet, bizarrely, Ms Sturgeon is still insisting that this was a party matter – just a private chat between two old party friends.
We should not be surprised. For Ms Sturgeon and her Nationalist colleagues, the words ‘SNP’ and ‘Scotland’ are interchangeable.
The interests of the SNP and the Scottish Government are the same.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that Ms Sturgeon struggles to understand the difference between a party matter and a government matter?
This arrogance has turned many Scots away from the SNP over recent years.
Last week, it rebounded on the party and the consequence of this Nationalist blind spot has landed Ms Sturgeon in deep trouble. Her reputation is now on the line.
This tawdry business has also highlighted the sheer bitterness that has seeped into the SNP’s bloodstream.
Admittedly, no party is immune from this, particularly those that have spent a significant amount of time in government. What the past week has shown beyond any doubt is that the SNP is now riddled with acrimony.
MR Salmond appears to have decided to declare outright civil war on Ms Sturgeon and her aides, infuriated by the party’s failure to make any progress advancing the case for independence. In return, Ms Sturgeon and her own allies are clearly livid at Mr Salmond’s self-aggrandising behaviour and are determined to strike back.
The upshot for the rest of us is that our governing party has now become increasingly sidetracked by petty, internecine feuds that have drained it of all energy and direction. That has an impact.
It is hard to say with a straight face these days but, according to Ms Sturgeon, her Government’s number one priority is supposed to be education.
Yet entirely diverted by her own internal difficulties – and by her endless attempts to use Brexit to push for independence – the claim has become simply risible.
The SNP Government has dumped an Education Bill it claimed, only 12 months earlier, to be central to the improvement of standards in Scotland.
Nothing has replaced it. The much-trumpeted plan to close Scotland’s attainment gap between the richest and poorest children has been watered down.
Last week, Education Secretary
John Swinney was humiliated when it turned out he had substantially misrepresented academics he claimed had backed his discredited tests for P1 pupils but who, it then turned out, had done nothing of the sort.
Mr Swinney should have received a public skelping for the outrageous falsehoods he allowed to be spread in defence of his plans.
The only reason he did not is because attention was diverted by the civil war being fought by his current and former boss.
And what of the rest of the SNP’s brief? On the economy, Ms Sturgeon has decided to sting Scotland’s middle classes.
INDEED, last week we also learnt there will soon be a 50 per cent increase in the number of workers paying the top rate of tax, as more and more people are sucked into paying. But while families pay more, they are getting less. In return for paying the highest taxes in the UK, we are rewarded with a rail service that has become a national joke and statutory NHS waiting time targets that are missed as a matter of routine.
Put simply, Ms Sturgeon’s Government has now run out of steam.
She had hoped that by weaponising Brexit, she would persuade Scots to return to yet another referendum on independence. She hoped this would be the story of her time in office.
Indeed, this week it seemed she was set to have another go, as the Brexit debate comes to a head. But this plan has not worked.
It is clear most Scots do not want to double down on uncertainty by going back to yet another independence referendum.
So now all Ms Sturgeon has is a domestic record that is becoming a national embarrassment – and a very angry former leader who appears to want revenge for the way he has been treated.
Incompetent where once it was professional, blind to its arrogance, riven by internal party disputes and out of touch with most Scots, the SNP is suddenly revealed as a creaking ship.
Ms Sturgeon has shown herself, over two decades of public life, to be a formidable political captain.
But, for the first time during her tenure as leader, there are real doubts over her ability to keep the crew content.
It is not only opposition party leaders such as myself saying this – so are her own backbenchers.
And all this at the very moment Scotland needs a fresh, positive, confident, forward-looking government, one that is totally focused on ensuring that, outside of the EU, we have a job-creating, entrepreneurial economy, seeking and securing every new opportunity to ensure our future success.
For 12 years the SNP has ruled over Scotland supreme.
Last week might go down as the moment when the edifice began to crumble.
And the week when Scotland began to look elsewhere.