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Can Salmond bring down Sturgeon?

Nicola Sturgeon can sacrifice others in order to protect herself

It is a simplification to assume that we are witnessing a mano e mano fight to the death between Scotland’s previous and current first ministers. That implies one fighter lives by plunging their dagger deep and fatally into the other. But Alex Salmond’s decision to have his vengeance is not a remake of Gladiator. Increasingly it resembles Kill Bill – specifically the action sequence in which Uma Thurman’s frantic swordplay makes mincemeat of the Crazy 88.

Unionists claim that the SNP’s predominance across so much of Scottish public life risks reforging the nation with the characteristics of a one party state – a regime where the political imperatives of the ruling party and the machinery of government are dangerously conjoined. Alex Salmond’s allegations, at the very least, imply those who run that machinery, if not the cogs themselves, are indeed bent upon one direction – in this instance to conspire against him. As he told the MSPs of the Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish government’s handling of harassment complaints during six hours of questioning on Friday, their task was “to examine the unacceptable conduct of those who appear to have no understanding of the importance of separation of party, government and prosecution authorities—or, indeed, of the rule of law itself.” Proving such allegations would end more careers than that of the current first minister.

Salmond’s accusations implicate the leaders not just of Scotland’s government but of its civil service and the conflicted roles of the Lord Advocate and Crown Office. The merging of interests that might benefit from greater detachment begins with the first minister and leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, and her husband, Peter Murrell, who is the chief executive of the SNP.

Text messages sent by Murrell in January 2020 when Salmond first appeared in court to face charges of sexual assault (of which he was subsequently acquitted), include the exhortations, “totally agree folk should be asking the police questions … report now with the PF [procurator fiscal] on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London” and “TBH the more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers. So CPS action would be a good thing.” In Salmond’s opinion, Murrell’s messages are “about not only pressurising the police … but about pressurising witnesses and collusion with witnesses. We are talking about the construction of evidence, because the police were somehow felt to be inadequate in finding it themselves.”

Then there is the role that Murrell’s better half played alongside Scotland’s most senior civil servant, the permanent secretary, Leslie Evans, in establishing a new harassment complaints procedure which was then applied against Salmond in a manner that the Court of Session thereafter determined was “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias.” It is Salmond’s contention that Evans combined overseeing that process with a bias aimed at securing his downfall.

That flawed process stung taxpayers for over £600,000 in legal fees and costs awarded to Salmond (and hence the reason this Holyrood inquiry has been convened to examine what went wrong). When in January 2019 Salmond won his case against the Scottish government’s harassment procedures, Evans replied defiantly, “we may lose the battle, but we will win the war.” Was this a fitting objective of Scotland’s chief bureaucrat? Salmond was duly arrested two weeks later and faced criminal trial which, had he not been acquitted on all charges, would have led to his imprisonment.

Next, there is the role of James Wolffe. As Lord Advocate he combines heading the Crown Office (the Scottish version of the CPS) with being the Sturgeon government’s legal adviser. He attends her cabinet by invitation – creating potential conflicts of interest that do not exist for his English counterpart, the director of public prosecutions.

there are pawns like Peter Murrell, Leslie Evans and James Wolffe that can be sacrificed in order to protect the queen

The Holyrood committee refused to consider key parts of Salmond’s testimony on the grounds that it could breach a High Court order ensuring a complainant’s anonymity. The Spectator magazine duly sought the High Court’s opinion on whether the order was indeed intended to prevent the committee considering the full testimony. The High Court ruled that the committee could hear it. But MSPs will not hear it, because the Crown Office made a timely intervention, effectively ordering the committee not to consider the contentious sections. These sections just happen to include the meat of Salmond’s contradiction of Nicola Sturgeon’s version of events, especially the meeting she had with him on 2 April 2018. According to Salmond, her account of that meeting implicates her in the resigning issue of a conscious breach of the ministerial code.

As Lord Hope of Craighead, the former lord president of the Court of Session, told the Today programme, the Crown Office’s intervention “is a very strange state of affairs.” But the Holyrood parliament will not ignore the direction to redact what amounts to the most politically damaging evidence. The Lord Advocate says the Crown Office issued the advice without his input. He is defending that advice all the same. “The idea that the only place where that evidence cannot be discussed is a parliamentary committee is the direct opposite of what should be true,” pleaded Salmond to the inquiry.

At Westminster, the CPS has never sought to override parliamentary privilege in this way. And if it did pretend to that authority, the Speaker of the House of Commons would have some tart observations on the matter. By contrast, some SNP MSPs may be relieved that the Lord Advocate will deflect on to himself accusations that the committee is avoiding investigating evidence that they fear is injurious to Nicola Sturgeon’s survival.

They will get their chance to avoid referring to this evidence when Sturgeon appears before the inquiry on Wednesday. She will use the hearing as an opportunity to portray Salmond’s claims of broad collusion as evidence that he is a delusional conspiracy theorist. Last Wednesday she talked to the press, accusing Salmond of “suggesting some kind of conspiracy or concerted campaign against him, without a shred of evidence.” She also made an injudicious assertion about Salmond’s criminal trial. “I watched in astonishment, on Wednesday, as the first minister of Scotland used a Covid press conference to effectively question the result of a jury” protested Salmond to the inquiry on Friday, “the truth is that those who now demand to see evidence have invested a great deal of time and public money in attempting to hide that evidence.”

There is no shortage of SNP ill-wishers who want the fallout from Salmond’s allegations to be Nicola Sturgeon’s downfall. But it has long ceased to be just about her. An entire style and approach to government is under scrutiny. As a consequence, there are pawns like Peter Murrell, Leslie Evans and James Wolffe that can be sacrificed in order to protect the queen. Salmond’s reputation being already damaged and his path back to the SNP blocked, it is said that he has nothing further to lose personally from pursuing this to the bitter end – apart from the damage to the cause he has served so faithfully. That makes him dangerous. But right now it is hard to see how he can duel against Scotland’s answer to the Crazy 88 with a sword the Lord Advocate has sawn off down to the hilt.

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