It is the murky saga of sex and skulduggery that has gripped Scottish politics – and could help to save the Union by stemming a surge in support for independence.
The toxic feud between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond is being watched closely by senior Government figures in London. They have become increasingly convinced that Mr Salmond has been stitched up by a ‘jealous cabal’ around Ms Sturgeon.
With the most recent polls showing a narrow majority in favour of breaking away, Boris Johnson’s pro-Union allies are doing little to disguise their delight at the sight of the two most powerful advocates of Scottish nationalism tearing each other apart.
The SNP last month accused Mr Johnson of ‘panicking’ over the support for Scottish nationalism when he paid a snap visit over the border to urge the UK to unite against Covid, declaring that the debate over independence was ‘irrelevant’ to most people.
The toxic feud between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond is being watched closely by senior Government figures in London. Pictured in April 2014
But in a sign of how seriously Mr Johnson takes the issue, last week he appointed Oliver Lewis – the trusted aide nicknamed ‘Sonic’, who played a pivotal role in the successful Brexit trade negotiations with the EU – as head of a new ‘Union unit’ to shore up support for the UK.
Mr Salmond’s allies believe that Ms Sturgeon wanted to place a ‘stake through the heart’ of the former First Minister to end any threat he posed to her leadership; their professional rivalries have been lent an extra dimension by the differences in temperament between the rotund, gregarious Mr Salmond and the steely, diminutive Ms Sturgeon.
After a court cleared Mr Salmond last year of multiple claims of sexual misconduct, he accused Ms Sturgeon’s government of ‘systematic’ dishonesty by secretly facilitating the complaints by women – with Ms Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, who is also the SNP’s chief executive, said to have encouraged the police to pursue the allegations.
Mr Salmond was accused of sexually assaulting nine women while he was First Minister, but a jury found him not guilty on 12 of the sexual assault charges, while another was found ‘not proven’.
Mr Salmond (pictured in 2014) was accused of sexually assaulting nine women while he was First Minister, but a jury found him not guilty on 12 of the sexual assault charges, while another was found ‘not proven’
The women who made the allegations against Mr Salmond included an SNP politician, a party worker and several current and former Scottish Government civil servants and officials. He declared angrily outside the court that the claims were ‘deliberate fabrications for a political purpose’, and that he had ‘never attempted to have non-consensual sexual relations with anyone in my entire life’.
His defence team claimed during the trial that a senior Scottish official in Ms Sturgeon’s government, known as Woman A, had contacted some of the other complainers before Mr Salmond was charged – something that his lawyer said ‘absolutely stinks’.
Claims by Mr Salmond’s allies – that he was the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by Ms Sturgeon – was bolstered by the emergence of a message from Mr Murrell to another SNP official in which he said that it was a ‘good time to be pressurising’ Mr Salmond over the claims.
Mr Salmond is scheduled to set out his claims at length in public for the first time on Tuesday, when he is due to give evidence before a Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him.
However, that appearance has been placed in doubt after the committee refused to publish a key plank of Mr Salmond’s evidence, in which he argues that Ms Sturgeon has breached the ministerial code by misleading Parliament over how she first learned about the allegations. Mr Salmond wrote: ‘Most seriously, Parliament has been repeatedly misled on a number of occasions about the nature of the meeting of April 2, 2018. The First Minister told Parliament that she first learned of the complaints against me when I visited her home on April 2, 2018. That is untrue and is a breach of the ministerial code.’ Breaching the code is normally a resignation offence. James Hamilton QC is investigating Ms Sturgeon over the issue.
However, it is understood that Mr Salmond now plans to pull out of the hearing if the committee has not published the evidence by tomorrow, and instead hold an explosive press conference to set out his claims based on text and WhatsApp messages, collated during the criminal investigation, which he says points to a conspiracy. One senior SNP source close to Mr Salmond said: ‘There are some 700 electronic messages – WhatsApp groups and text messages.’
Ms Sturgeon is due to give evidence at the committee on February 16, and is expected to be the final witness. Her husband has been recalled to appear for a second time tomorrow.
She has dismissed the claims of conspiracy as a ‘heap of nonsense’ – but Mr Salmond’s allies question why she made the Scottish Government’s policy on harassment retrospective. One SNP source said: ‘The timescale is confirmation that they were going after Alex Salmond. This was not done for any other reason.’
The claims are increasingly believed by senior figures in Mr Johnson’s Government. One source said: ‘Salmond has got his bit between his teeth, and his claims about Sturgeon are looking increasingly convincing.’ Before the souring of their relationship, Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon had been close political allies, with Mr Salmond acting as her mentor.
When he agreed to become leader for the second time, in 2004 – ultimately leading the SNP to power for the first time in its history – it was as part of a joint ticket, with Ms Sturgeon as his deputy.
But when Mr Salmond finally stepped down, after losing the 2014 independence referendum, tensions grew over his demand for Mr Murrell to stand down as SNP chief executive.
His allies say those tensions dramatically escalated into all-out war in early 2018, when it was rumoured that, after losing his Westminster seat, Mr Salmond would stand for the Scottish Parliament – something which they say provoked a competitive reaction from Ms Sturgeon and her inner circle, and ultimately the criminal trial.
A source said: ‘There is a jealous and insecure element to Nicola and her gang.’