Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is to answer questions Wednesday about her government’s handling of sexual assault claims against her predecessor, in a case that could damage her push for independence.
The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) has vehemently denied claims she misled the parliament in Edinburgh about when she knew of the claims against Alex Salmond.
Salmond, who was cleared of all charges at a trial last year, has accused her of a failure of leadership and said he believed she breached the ministerial code.
But he stopped short of calling for her resignation.
Sturgeon told the pro-independence newspaper The National last week that she was relishing setting out “the facts… rather than the spurious and unfounded conspiracies that others choose to misrepresent as the truth for their own ends”.
The row involving two of the independence movement’s biggest names has huge implications for Scotland, and could hit a surge in support for independence indicated in recent polling.
It has also laid bare factional fighting within the SNP, and continued support for Salmond, 66, who stepped down as first minister in 2014, after Scots rejected independence in the first referendum.
Sturgeon under scrutiny
Sturgeon, 50, riding high on the back of her stewardship of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, has been hoping to strengthen her case for another referendum at local elections in May.
But UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to sanction a new vote, after Scots voted by a majority in 2014 to remain in the three-centuries-old union.
Under scrutiny is Sturgeon’s meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, in March 2018 when she is said to have first been told of the allegations against her former mentor.
She initially told parliament she only learned of the claims from Salmond himself a few days later, then she maintained she had “forgotten” about the first meeting.
Salmond has previously won a civil case and legal costs about the government’s handling of the allegations, which a judge said was “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias”.
He was also cleared in a criminal trial that ended in March last year of 13 counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape, against nine women when he was first minister.
He said the allegations against him were “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”.
Leadership under pressure
Before his appearance before the inquiry last week, he accused Sturgeon and her closest allies of conspiring against him, even to the extent of having him imprisoned.
He also accused Scotland’s prosecution service, the Crown Office, of working with the government.
But on Tuesday, the government’s senior legal adviser, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe, denied any claims of collusion and political influence.
SNP deputy leader John Swinney has also faced a parliamentary vote of no confidence over his failure to provide the external legal advice to the government it received about the Salmond case.
Salmond accuses Sturgeon’s government of pursuing a case it was destined to lose, using public money, again in breach of the ministerial code.
The Scottish Government published the advice on Tuesday evening.
Swinney said it would not normally be released. “But we have to acknowledge that the issues at stake now are not normal,” he added.
“The very integrity of the legal system is being questioned. Serious allegations have been made. This material allows people to confirm that these allegations are false.”
The newly appointed leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, said last weekend that Sturgeon should quit if she is found to have breached the ministerial code.