Nicola Sturgeon was on Thursday struggling to contain a growing SNP rebellion after she was accused of using “weasel words” to question the innocence of Alex Salmond.
Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the party, lodged a formal complaint that the First Minister had breached the ministerial code with comments she made in a press briefing on Wednesday.
Ms Sturgeon launched an outspoken attack on her predecessor, claiming his conduct towards women, rather than the conspiracy he has alleged, were the "root" of claims against him
She added that just because he had been cleared of criminality, “that doesn’t mean that the behaviour [women] complained of didn’t happen.”
Mr Sillars, an ex-MP, said that in six decades in public life, he could not recall another occasion when a political leader had “so egregiously questioned the verdict of a jury”.
Meanwhile, Alex Neil, a former senior SNP cabinet minister who served in the administrations of both Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, called for secret documents about the Salmond affair which are being withheld by the Scottish Government and Crown Office to be made public.
If they prove Mr Salmond’s claims of a conspiracy, as the former First Minister claims they will, all those involved should “get their jotters”, meaning resign or be sacked, Mr Neil claimed.
In a third intervention, Kenny MacAskill, the SNP MP and former justice secretary, said “some removals from office are long overdue” at the Crown Office, which caused controversy this week after it successfully pressured Holyrood into censoring sections of Mr Salmond’s written evidence.
At Holyrood on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon was told that “something rotten at the core of the SNP'' was “poisoning” the country’s democratic institutions. She was also accused of presiding over a “culture of secrets and cover-up” and trashing Scotland’s reputation to save her own skin.
Mr Salmond is due to give long-awaited evidence to a Holyrood inquiry on Friday afternoon, in which he is expected to expand on his claims that Ms Sturgeon repeatedly broke the ministerial code in her handing of sexual harassment complaints against him.
Mr Sillars, who is a long-standing critic of Ms Sturgeon but who has also had a fraught relationship with Mr Salmond, lodged a new complaint over her comments about the verdict in the criminal trial. It saw Mr Salmond cleared of 13 sex assault charges.
The SNP veteran alleged she broke the section of the code that requires ministers to “maintain high standards of behaviour” and to “behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety”.
Mr Sillars said: “Those were weasel words employed by the First Minister, and any reasonable person would draw more than an inference from them that the jury was wrong.
“I have been in public life for over 60 years, and in the course of it studied how heads of state and governments in the democracies have behaved in office.
“I cannot recall one single incident when the head of a government so egregiously questioned the verdict of a jury, or thought it a proper and legitimate discharge of their duty to do so.”
Ms Sturgeon’s spokesman said that she stood by the comments she had made at the press briefing, and said she would have more to say when she gives evidence to the parliament committee next week.
At Holyrood, the First Minister accused her opponents of indulging in Mr Salmond’s conspiracy theories which she said threatened the reputation of Scotland’s judicial institutions.
She added: “Scrutiny of me is important, necessary and entirely legitimate. What is not legitimate is for someone to pursue a conspiracy theory or scorched-earth policy that threatens the reputation and integrity of Scotland’s independent justice institutions just because they happen to dislike the Government, and to sacrifice all that, if I may say so, on the altar of the ego of one man.”