Nicola Sturgeon facing calls to resign as witnesses back Alex Salmond's evidence on key meetings

Simon Johnson
·7-min read
Key witnesses in the Alex Salmond scandal corroborated his version of events and provided damning evidence she repeatedly misled parliament - Getty Images Europe
Key witnesses in the Alex Salmond scandal corroborated his version of events and provided damning evidence she repeatedly misled parliament - Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls to resign after two witnesses in the Alex Salmond scandal corroborated his version of key events and provided damning evidence she repeatedly misled parliament.

In a potentially devastating development for the First Minister, ahead of her appearance before a Holyrood inquiry on Wednesday morning, a pair of former special advisers contradicted her claims about two meetings in 2018.

Ms Sturgeon has told parliament she only found out about the allegations when Mr Salmond visited her home on April 2, 2018 and but she refused to intervene.

Last week she denied during First Minister's Questions the identity of one of the women was shared with Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond's chief of staff, "to the best of my knowledge".

But Duncan Hamilton, a former SNP MP and junior counsel, said the name of a complainant was given to Mr Aberdein by a senior official shortly after Mr Salmond was informed of the government's investigation into sexual misconduct claims on March 7, 2018.

In a letter to the inquiry, he said "fact that the government official had shared that information with Mr Aberdein was reported to me, and to Kevin Pringle, on a conference call."

He was present at the meeting between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon at her home on April 2 and confirmed she "did offer to assist" him with her government's investigation only to change her mind.

Ms Sturgeon has told parliament she refused to get involved but Mr Hamilton, said: "We discussed mediation. My clear recollection is that her words were 'If it comes to it, I will intervene'."

He contradicted Ms Sturgeon's claim about when she found out about the allegations, stating that when Mr Salmond and his team arrived at her home, "everyone in the room knew exactly why we were there."

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Mr Pringle, the SNP's former communications chief, also told the inquiry that the name of a complainant was shared with Mr Aberdein during a meeting with a senior Scottish Government official.

Both he and Mr Hamilton said a meeting between Mr Aberdein and Ms Sturgeon was arranged on March 29 - four days earlier - to discuss the allegations and set up the visit to her home.

Ms Sturgeon claims she "forgot" about this first meeting, despite the explosive content, and that it had been fleeting and opportunistic.

In a third devastating blow to the First Minister last night, her government finally published emails showing it continued a legal fight with Mr Salmond despite its lawyers advising it was likely to lose.

They showed a senior lawyer was "very concerned indeed" about the judicial review case in October 2018, with the government's counsel urging it to admit defeat by December 6.

In a damning joint note by Roddy Dunlop QC and Christine O'Neill on December 19, they relayed their "extreme professional embarrassment" they had suffered.

They said they had given assurances to the court that "turned out to be false as a result of the revelation of further (government) documents, highly relevant yet undisclosed" and the case was becoming "unstatable."

By December 28, the lawyers had threatened to resign and the Scottish Government collapsed the case a few days later, in January 2019.

The SNP administration he had once led had to pay Mr Salmond's legal fees of more than £500,000 after admitting its investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations had been unlawful.

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Ms Sturgeon stood by her testimony and denied breaking the code of conduct. She was said to have spent the weekend and Monday preparing for her inquiry appearance with her legal team.

However, the Scottish Conservatives said they would table a motion of no confidence in the First Minister for breaching the ministerial code by misleading parliament. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said: "Credible witnesses have now backed up Alex Salmond's claims and the legal advice shows the government knew months in advance that the judicial review was doomed but they still went on to waste more than £500,000 of taxpayers' money.

"There is no longer any doubt that Nicola Sturgeon lied to the Scottish Parliament and broke the ministerial code on numerous counts.

"No First Minister can be allowed to mislead the Scottish people and continue in office, especially when they have tried to cover up the truth and abused the power of their office in the process. The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. Nicola Sturgeon must resign."

Mr Salmond won the judicial review in 2019 after the judge Lord Pentland ruled the Scottish Government's investigation into the sexual misconduct claims was "procedurally unfair" and "tainted with apparent bias".

The case was abandoned on the eve of a Court of Session hearing after the government admitted it had breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had “prior involvement” with two civil servants who had made complaints.

The committee’s inquiry into the debacle was kickstarted after when Mr Salmond was acquitted of sexual assault charges at the High Court last year.

Mr Salmond was last week adamant Ms Sturgeon knew about the allegations on March 29, 2018 and pointed out he would not "pop in" to her Glasgow home four days later as he lives 200 miles away in Aberdeenshire.

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted there is "not a shred of evidence" that there was a conspiracy against her former mentor Mr Salmond and she has denied lying to Parliament - PA
Nicola Sturgeon has insisted there is "not a shred of evidence" that there was a conspiracy against her former mentor Mr Salmond and she has denied lying to Parliament - PA

He said Mr Pringle and Mr Hamilton could corroborate his version of events, and the committee wrote to the pair.

In his reply, Mr Hamilton said: "I confirm that I am aware of the identity of the government official who gave the name of the complainant to Mr Aberdein." He said he had not heard of the woman but Mr Pringle had.

He wrote the meeting in Ms Sturgeon's parliamentary office on March 29 was “for the purpose of discussing the complaints”.

In addition, he backed Mr Salmond by stating they would not have known to attend the First Minister's house on April 2 "without the invitation arising" from the earlier meeting.

Referring to Ms Sturgeon's alleged offer to intervene, he said: "From a legal perspective, that was the most important aspect of the meeting. I therefore remember it clearly.

"I discussed the commitment to intervene with Mr Salmond and Mr Aberdein after we left the meeting specifically because it seemed very likely that mediation would be achieved. From Mr Salmond’s perspective, that was the desired outcome.

"The First Minister did later change her mind. She was entitled to do so. That change was, however, a matter of surprise. From a legal perspective, that change in position removed one of the possible alternatives to court proceedings."

He said he was willing to give the evidence under oath in an affidavit if necessary.

Mr Pringle, who was Mr Salmond's chief spin doctor when he was First Minister, wrote: "I can confirm from my conversations with Mr Aberdein that he is in no doubt that a complainant's name was shared with him...and he made Duncan Hamilton and me aware of this in a call later the same day.

"Second, based again on my contact with Mr Aberdein, I know that he was clear that the purpose of the meeting on March 29, 2018 was to discuss the two complaints that had been made against Mr Salmond."

A spokesman for Ms Sturgeon said: "The First Minister will address all of the issues raised – and much more besides – at the committee tomorrow, while the independent adviser on the ministerial code will report in due course.

“But to call a vote of no confidence in the middle of a pandemic, before hearing a single word of the First Minister’s evidence, is utterly irresponsible."