(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

A time to keep silence and time to speak

Nicola Sturgeon offers a PR masterclass in how to bury bad news

Nicola Sturgeon’s response is the correct one. Correct not necessarily in the sense that her refutation of the charges made against her can be vouchsafed as nothing but the whole truth. But correct in terms of the political tactics required to blunt an exceedingly bad news day.

The leaked conclusions of the Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish government’s expensive mishandling of its inquiry into Alex Salmond is at the worse – though not the worst – end of the spectrum as far as Sturgeon is concerned. “Worst” would involve an accusation of clear and conscious lying. The language is a little less charged than that.

Unless it is somehow amended between now and its formal presentation on Tuesday, the Holyrood committee will conclude that it is “hard to believe” that the First Minister was entirely oblivious to concerns about her predecessor’s behaviour before November 2017 and that she had – under oath – misled the committee, offering an “inaccurate account” of her 2 April 2018 meeting with Alex Salmond at her home. Indeed, this meeting was seemingly not, contrary to her original stated recollection, when she first became aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct against him. From that, much else flows.

Sturgeon’s absence from the Scottish media glare today was against character. She did not stand on the steps of her official residence, Bute House, or summon a press conference at Holyrood. Usually, she takes the daily televised press briefing on Covid, which critics complain has long degenerated into a Hugo Chavez-style personality cult permitting her to dominate the Scottish news agenda as the daily saviour of the nation (something that most days Boris Johnson spares us). Today, however, Sturgeon generously let the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Jeane Freeman, appear instead of her.

Dutifully, BBC Scotland’s team covering the televised press conference ignored in its build-up commentary the vulgar political crisis brewing offstage, instead treating it as the Covid information service the Scottish government describes it to be. But even in a media culture as deferential to (Scottish) government ministers as Scotland’s, a lid cannot be kept on a furiously boiling pot indefinitely.

Eventually, a Sky News reporter had the temerity to slip-in a supplementary question to Jeane Freeman about the committee’s findings. Freeman ticked him off, reminding him that tackling Covid was the only fit subject for discussion in this forum, before offering the simple refutation:

“I do not believe the First Minister should resign. I do not believe she has misled Parliament. I have absolute confidence in her veracity of what she said in those eight hours of evidence to that committee in her integrity and in her professionalism and I am not going to comment on unattributed briefings about a report that has not yet been published.”

At which point she briskly asked for a new questioner.

Sturgeon’s absence from the public’s gaze today is another manifestation of her political shrewdness. There is a time to come out fighting. And a time to let your bodyguards step forward to form a protective circle.

the committee is unprofessional and partisan; it is a kangaroo court – a revolutionary tribunal

The time for her to face the flashbulbs is Tuesday, when the report is formally presented in full. To speak now, when the Opposition and the media are still drawing-up their script from partial information would be a public relations folly. Why step forward into the dock that her opponents are setting-up for her, at the moment of their choosing? Far better to let them huff and puff. And if, on Tuesday, the committee’s report contains nothing worse than what we have already heard then that is the moment – by which time the critics are hoarse, exhausted and boringly on-repeat –  for Sturgeon to appear before the cameras with her counter-attack.

Obviously, the leaks cannot be ignored meanwhile. Besides Freeman’s defence, Sturgeon has issued a refutation through her spokesperson, making clear that she stands by “every word of her evidence.” This tactic allows the spokesperson to set out the stall which Sturgeon will occupy come Tuesday. That stall, the spokesperson articulated, as follows:

“the committee appears to have resorted to baseless assertion, supposition and smear – that is not how serious parliamentary committees are supposed to work, and in behaving this way they are simply exposing their base political motives.”

This statement is cleverly phrased. It conveys the key messages that Sturgeon’s defenders seek to implant: the committee is unprofessional and partisan; it is a kangaroo court – a revolutionary tribunal – and its incendiary accusations are the propaganda of the SNP’s enemies and not something to be confused with an impartial adjudication of the evidence.

Many Scots have already made their minds up as to what they think – or whether they care – about the whole sorry business. For them, the view of MSPs, who split neatly along party lines, confirms nothing they could not have foreseen. It was always a reasonable prediction that the four members of the committee who are SNP MSPs would see no evil whilst the one Labour, one Lib Dem and two Tory members would see wickedness everywhere. In that sense, the Sturgeonite “line” about partiality will hit the plausibility chord.

But as the one “swing voter,” much interest has naturally been focused on which way Andy Wightman, would turn. He was elected as a Green Party MSP and the Greens are the SNP’s allies. But he now sits as an independent, having parted company with his party over its stance on trans gender issues. Those who followed the months of deliberation closely were generally impressed by his tone and line of questioning. In the event, he joined Sturgeon’s critics.

Leaking the findings in advance makes sense if there are further, perhaps more damning, conclusions in the final version of the report. In that way, Tuesday’s official publication would not only sustain the sense of crisis but intensify it. “It’s even worse that we were lead to believe” then becomes the narrative. But Sturgeon is not going to publicly fall onto her knees wailing in repentance on Tuesday just because MSPs in rival parties to her own want her out.

The greater danger will come a few days later when the inquiry led by the Irish barrister, James Hamilton QC, issues its findings into whether the First Minister broke the ministerial code. If Hamilton concludes she did not, or did not knowingly, then the fulminations of a Scottish parliamentary committee can be ignored. But if someone of Hamilton’s independent professional reputation not only finds that she did break the code but did so knowingly and wilfully, then, as they say, the First Minister really does have “questions to answer.”

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