Nicola Sturgeon has called Alex Salmond’s claim that there is a plot against him “absurd” as she strongly denied intervening in an investigation into sex harassment complaints against her predecessor.
The first minister is appearing before a Holyrood committee fighting for her job, after opposition MSPs called for her to resign on Tuesday night as previously secret legal advice relating to the saga was made public.
Salmond won a judicial review of the government’s complaints procedure, which had been set up in the wake of Me Too in 2018 to allow older allegations to be investigated – but was botched, with an investigator into Salmond’s case found to be already in contact with the complainants.
Salmond was awarded more than £500,000 in costs, and acquitted of sexual offences at a subsequent criminal trial.
The documents showed that lawyers had repeatedly raised concerns about whether the Scottish government could win the judicial review – despite which it continued with the case.
Sturgeon has been under pressure to explain her contact with Salmond’s chief of staff on March 29, 2018 – something she later told MSPs she had forgotten about.
Sturgeon’s governmental meetings are supposed to be formally recorded, but this one was not. She has insisted the meeting was to discuss SNP business, rather than anything to do with the government, and that she did not reveal the meeting with the former FM as she did not want to influence the investigation.
The FM insists that she did not intervene in the probe against Salmond, which would have been an “abuse” of her role.
The change of rules to allow historic abuses to be investigated has been seen by some as targeting Salmond.
But under questioning about why the policy was changed, Sturgeon said it was “absolutely right at that time for my government to review its processes, consider any weaknesses and gaps in them and put in place a procedure that would allow complaints, including those of an historic nature, to be investigated”.
Sturgeon said it had been right to launch the investigation, saying: “An individual’s profile, status or connections should not result in complaints of this nature being ignored or swept under the carpet. That in this case it was a former first minister does not change that.”
Salmond has called for the resignation of a number of figures in Sturgeon’s inner circle and insists his former protege has broken the ministerial code.
But Sturgeon said: “I feel I must rebut the absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond. That claim is not based in any fact.
“What happened is this and it is simple.
“A number of women made complaints against Alex Salmond. The government, despite the mistake it undoubtedly made, tried to do the right thing.
“As first minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants.
“The police conducted an independent criminal investigation.
“The crown office considered there was a case to answer.
“Now this committee is considering what happened and why.”
Sturgeon also used her appearance to attack Salmond, saying that his behaviour in the past toward women has been “deeply inappropriate” and that he has failed to express regret or apologise during his testimony.
Sturgeon, who served as deputy leader of the SNP under Salmond for some 10 years, said that being at the committee “makes me really sad”.
She said: “In all the legitimate considerations of this, sometimes the human elements of this situation are lost. Alex spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him, and I don’t doubt that.
“I have thought often about the impact on him. He was someone I cared about for a long time.
“And maybe that’s why on Friday I found myself searching for any sign that he recognised how difficult this has been for others too. First and foremost to the women who believed his behaviour to be inappropriate.
“But also to those who had campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend and now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.
“That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question. But I know, just from what he told me, that his behaviour was not always appropriate.
“And yet across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or a simple acknowledgment of that. I can only hope in private the reality might be different.”
The Holyrood committee is investigating the Scottish government’s handling of sex harassment complaints against the ex-first minister. A separate investigation is examining whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code.