By Estelle Shirbon and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was cleared on Monday of breaking a ministerial code of conduct in the way she handled sexual harassment complaints against her predecessor, a ruling likely to save her career and her party's electoral prospects.
Sturgeon has been under intense scrutiny over what she did and did not do when she learnt of complaints by several women against Alex Salmond - once her close friend and ally in the cause of Scottish independence, now an implacable enemy.
James Hamilton, a widely respected Irish lawyer appointed to conduct an independent inquiry into Sturgeon's conduct, found that she had not breached the ministerial code. Had he reached the opposite conclusion, she would have been expected to resign.
"I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the provisions of the Ministerial Code in respect of any of these matters," Hamilton said in his eagerly awaited report.
He rejected suggestions that she had broken the rules by failing to record meetings with Salmond in 2018, that she tried to influence an investigation into his behaviour, or that she misled the Scottish parliament.
The report comes at a crucial time in Scottish politics, with elections due in May. Sturgeon has vowed to press for a second referendum on independence from the United Kingdom if her Scottish National Party (SNP) wins an absolute majority.
The latest polls suggest that an endless stream of negative headlines about the Sturgeon/Salmond feud have dented the SNP's popularity. However, a majority remains a distinct possibility, and Hamilton's report will give SNP supporters hope.
Sturgeon welcomed the findings.
"Mr Hamilton has considered all of the allegations against me, and I am happy that his report’s findings clear me of any breach of the ministerial code," she said in a statement.
"I sought at every stage in this issue to act with integrity and in the public interest. As I have previously made clear, I did not consider that I had broken the code, but these findings are official, definitive and independent adjudication of that."
Last week, Sky News and other media reported that a parliamentary committee carrying out a separate inquiry into how Sturgeon and her administration had dealt with the Salmond claims had concluded by a narrow majority that she had given misleading evidence.
She accused the committee of being politically motivated.
Salmond, who stood trial on charges of sexual assault and was acquitted in 2020, has portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiracy to drive him out of public life. Sturgeon has rejected that as absurd.
Scots voted against independence by 55%-45% in 2014, but the SNP argues they should be given another chance to vote on the issue given changes in the situation since then.
In particular, Scots voted against Brexit but the United Kingdom as a whole voted in favour of it, leading to Scotland being taken out of the European Union against the will of the majority of Scots.
On Monday, the Scottish government published a draft independence referendum bill which the SNP said it would seek to pass in the first half of the next parliament should it win May's election.
The Conservatives, who are in power in the United Kingdom as a whole but in opposition in Scotland, are planning a vote of no confidence in Sturgeon on Tuesday. After Hamilton's report, it is all but certain that the motion will fail.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Michael Holden, Editing by Angus MacSwan)