Nicola Sturgeon was branded absurd yesterday as she clashed with Ruth Davidson over her handling of sexual misconduct claims against her predecessor Alex Salmond.
Scotland’s First Minister was accused of ‘taking people for fools’ as she insisted she has ‘nothing to hide’ after being accused of misleading the Scottish Parliament about when she first knew about allegations against him.
Ms Sturgeon previously said she was first made aware of complaints against her predecessor when he told her in a meeting at her home on April 2, 2018.
But it has since emerged that she was informed during a meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein on March 29 that year, three days earlier.
During First Minister’s Questions the First Minister was challenged by Tory Holyrood leader Ms Davidson on whether her claim to have simply forgotten was ‘credible’.
Ms Sturgeon said: ‘I get why people will look at that and raise an eyebrow.
‘There is something seared on my memory and it is actually the meeting that took place some three days later when Alex Salmond himself sat in my own home and gave me the details of the complaints that had been made against him and also gave me his response to aspects of those complaints.
‘That is what seared in my memory and I think most reasonable people would understand that.
‘Forgive me if that has somehow overwritten in my mind a much more fleeting, opportunistic meeting that took place a few days earlier, that is just how it is.’
But Ms Davidson replied: ‘This isn’t a trivial matter. And what lies at the heart of this matter is whether there was an abuse of power, and an abuse of power affects every citizen of this country.
‘And I’m afraid the position of the First Minister is absurd.
‘Why did the First Minister mislead Parliament by omitting the fact that this meeting ever happened?’
Mr Salmond was cleared of 13 charges of sexual assault, attempted rape and indecent exposure at the High Court in Edinburgh in March.
The court case followed legal action taken by the former first minister, which found the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him had been unlawful and he was awarded more than £500,000.
In evidence submitted to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, which was set up to investigate the matter, Ms Sturgeon said she had forgotten about the meeting with Mr Aberdein.
The First Minister repeatedly added she wants to appear before the committee to answer any questions MSPs may have, adding that she is ‘looking forward’ to giving evidence.
Ms Davidson said the explanation given by the First Minister ‘does not even bear the lightest scrutiny’, adding it is ‘beyond belief’.
The First Minister continued: ‘That is the fact, other people can decide to give their own evidence – I will give mine and I will sit before a committee whenever the committee decides to call me and I will do that on oath and I will give my account of what happened.
Ms Davidson went on to ask the First Minister if she believes a judge-led inquiry should be launched to look into the handling of the complaints, an idea put forward by SNP MSP Alex Neil.
The First Minister said: ‘There is a parliamentary inquiry under way that I’ve given evidence to and that I will sit in front of and give evidence to orally, I will do it under oath.
‘I’ve got nothing to hide in all of this. I’ve had two years or more of people making accusations about my conduct.
‘It’s not my conduct that sparked off this, I’ve tried to act in the proper way – if I’ve made mistakes along the way then I will say that and people can make their judgments.
‘But I have tried to do the right thing and I will continue to try to do the right thing.’
by RORY TINGLE for MailOnline and MICHAEL BLACKLEY, Political Editor, and RACHEL WESTON, Deputy Political Editor, for the Scottish Daily Mail
Nicola Sturgeon is in the midst of a sex and politics scandal that could end her career as it emerged her SNP chief executive husband sent texts calling for ‘pressure’ to be put on police to investigate Alex Salmond over sexual assault claims.
The bombshell evidence emerged yesterday as part of an inquiry into her government’s botched handling of complaints against the former First Leader, which has prompted a bitter personal feud that has split the party into two warring factions.
Mr Salmond’s allies accuse Miss Sturgeon of colluding against her former friend and mentor of 30 years to paint him as a sexual predator. Explosive new allegations could now force her resignation at the very time her use of the Covid crisis to drive support for Scottish independence seemed to have gained unstoppable momentum.
Texts have emerged showing how Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell called for ‘pressure’ to be put on police over an investigation into Alex Salmond – right – regarding sexual assault claims
Mr Salmond’s allies have now leapt on new evidence showing her husband, Peter Murrell, texted a senior SNP staffer saying it would be a ‘good time to be pressurising police’ just a day after he went on trial for attempted rape and indecent assault.
Timeline of the scandal that has split the SNP in two
Nicola Sturgeon was friends with Alex Salmond for 30 years, with the former First Minister serving as a mentor during her stratospheric rise through Scottish politics.
She has since compared falling out with Mr Salmond over sexual harassment claims to ‘losing a loved one’ as she described him as ‘one of the biggest influences of my life’.
These are the main events that prompted the feud that has split the SNP into two and now threatens Miss Sturgeon’s political future.
October 31, 2017 – Ministers order a review of the Scottish government’s ‘policies and processes for addressing inappropriate conduct’ in the wake of the MeToo movement.
Miss Sturgeon insisted that the new sexual harassment policy must cover allegations against former as well as current ministers – a move Mr Salmond’s allies have used as evidence of a conspiracy against him.
January 2018 – Two female staff members make formal complaints to the government against Mr Salmond, dating back to when he was first minister in December 2013.
March – Mr Salmond is informed about the investigation.
April 2 – The date Sturgeon previously claimed to have first learned of complaints about Mr Salmond when he told her, during a meeting at her home.
March 29 – The date she later admitted to have heard about them in a meeting with Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, at her parliament office.
January 24, 2019: Mr Salmond appears in court charged with sexual offices against women.
January 25 – Her husband, Peter Murrell, texts a senior SNP staff member calling for pressure on the police to act: ‘Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions… report now with the PF on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London.’
Second text: ‘TBH the more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers. so CPS action would be a good thing.’
March 23, 2020: Salmond is acquitted of all charges following a trial.
He was later cleared of all charges and successfully sued the Scottish government over its investigation into him. A judge concluded the probe had been ‘unlawful’, leading to the current inquiry into Miss Sturgeon’s conduct and whether she showed deliberate bias.
In another significant new development, Miss Sturgeon was yesterday accused of ‘misleading parliament’ after revealing she was made aware of ‘allegations of a sexual nature’ in relation to Mr Salmond days before previously claimed.
The new evidence threatens the SNP leader’s political survival just months before next May’s Holyrood elections, because if she is found by the inquiry to have misled parliament this would require her to step down under the terms of the ministerial code.
This could leave the woman dubbed ‘Queen Nicola’ by supporters – and who has repeatedly been accused of resisting a UK-wide solution to the Covid pandemic in favour of grandstanding over Westminster – facing political oblivion just as her lifelong ambition appeared to be within reach.
Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell said yesterday he ‘didn’t express himself well’ in the messages and denied he was trying to push for tougher police action against Mr Salmond.
Mr Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, sent two messages to a senior SNP staffer after Mr Salmond appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in January 2019 which appear to show he supported pressuring police.
The first read: ‘Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions… report now with the PF [procurator fiscal] on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London.’
In a second text he wrote: ‘TBH the more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers. So CPS action would be a good thing.’
Giving evidence to the inquiry yesterday, Mr Murrell said ‘I acknowledge I did not express myself well’ but insisted but claimed his ‘intended meaning was that any and all complaints should be appropriately investigated’.
He said: ‘My intended meaning was that any and all complaints should be appropriately investigated.
‘The tone of it is a reflection of the shock, hurt and upset that I, and so many others in the SNP, felt that day given the events that had unfolded in court the previous day.
‘As most people will appreciate, the immediacy of text messages lend themselves to informal, shorthand forms of expression but, even so, I would wish on reflection to have expressed myself more appropriately.’
Miss Sturgeon was asked about the messages at First Minister’s Questions last week, but said: ‘I do not think it is reasonable for me to be asked questions about things that other people might or might not have done.’
SNP MP Kenny MacAskill has said the messages were ‘entirely inappropriate’ and any attempt to influence criminal investigations was ‘unacceptable’.
It came as Miss Sturgeon was yesterday accused of ‘misleading parliament’ after revealing she was made aware of ‘allegations of a sexual nature’ in relation to Mr Salmond days before previously claimed.
As well as the admission, Miss Sturgeon told MSPs she had had a ‘lingering concern’ that allegations against Mr Salmond would emerge since November 2017. This was when she was first warned about an alleged incident at Edinburgh Airport.
Miss Sturgeon is now facing serious questions over the timeline of events leading up to when complaints about Mr Salmond were made public.
The explosive evidence has led to accusations that she has breached the ministerial code by misleading parliament – an offence for which ministers are expected to resign.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: ‘Now we know why the SNP won’t release all the key documents to the inquiry.
Salmond ‘tried to keep investigation into sex claims secret’
Alex Salmond tried to keep the investigation into complaints against him secret, new evidence shows.
A series of WhatsApp messages between Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon show he tried to stop the probe into harassment complaints being made public.
He stressed the Scottish Government response to a freedom of information request should be to ‘neither confirm or deny’ any investigation was being carried out. The former First Minister also warned Miss Sturgeon in June 2018 he was prepared to initiate a judicial review into the Government’s handling of complaints against him.
He said this would be ‘rough’ for him as it would be public – but that ‘at least I will have the opportunity to clear my name and good prospects of doing so – but for the Government?’
In July, following a face-to-face meeting, Mr Salmond suggests arbitration to sort out the matter over his belief that the complaints process was unlawful.
This had been rejected by the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, according to the message.
However, he urges Miss Sturgeon to consider this, saying this would allow the process testing the legality of the Scottish Government complaint process to be done privately. In a message sent from Mr Salmond, he says adopting an arbitration process would prevent the Government from ‘losing in a public court’.
Mr Salmond said the Permanent Secretary had ‘intimated that an FOI had been submitted’ and then sets out a response that could keep the process secret.
There is no response in the evidence submission from Miss Sturgeon to this message. However, a judicial review later found in Mr Salmond’s favour – that the Government’s process had been ‘tainted with apparent bias’.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: ‘It seems extraordinary that the former First Minister was trying to intervene in this very serious process.
‘One has to wonder why he saw this as a fit and proper way to react. And his successor as First Minister must clearly explain what she felt in relation to this request.’
‘The scraps of evidence they have provided are damning enough to show Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament and Peter Murrell [her husband and SNP chief executive] sought to pressure police to act against Alex Salmond.
‘The SNP’s excuses are incredible and simply beyond belief. We are expected to accept that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister renowned for her grasp of detail, has the memory of a sieve when she’s told that her mentor of 30 years is facing allegations of sexual misconduct.’
He added: ‘It’s hard to know what’s more shocking – this evidence, the fact they think we’ll believe this pile of nonsense or that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
‘It’s only what the SNP are willing to let us see. It’s now a matter of fact that the First Minister misled parliament. She did not find out on April 2  and she did not find out from Alex Salmond.’
On January 8, 2019, she told the parliament that ‘on April 2, he [Mr Salmond] informed me about the complaints against him’.
However, it yesterday emerged Miss Sturgeon was aware of concerns regarding sexual harassment complaints days earlier.
She has admitted to meeting ex-adviser Geoff Aberdein in her Scottish parliament office on March 29, 2018. The meeting was not entered into her official diary.
She said from what she recalls ‘the discussion covered the fact Alex Salmond wanted to see me urgently about a serious matter, and I think it did cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’.
Details of the meeting first emerged during Mr Salmond’s criminal trial – where, under oath, Mr Aberdein confirmed the meeting had taken place.
It was not until August 2020 that the Government confirmed this.
In her evidence to MSPs, Miss Sturgeon said that she had ‘forgotten that this encounter had taken place’ and was only reminded of it in ‘late January/early February 2019’.
She also claimed Mr Aberdein went to see her after meeting a former colleague in parliament.
But sources claim the meeting between the pair had been planned. It took place four days before Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond met at her home, where he told her of the two government complaints.
Miss Sturgeon has insisted she only met Mr Salmond due to hearing he was distressed and was ready to resign from the SNP. She added: ‘I suspected the reason Alex Salmond wanted to see me on April 2 was that he was facing an allegation of sexual misconduct.’
Miss Sturgeon claimed that her conversation with Mr Aberdein ‘contributed to that suspicion’ but that it was ‘not the only factor’. This was more than four months after she admitted to being warned of an alleged incident at Edinburgh Airport in ‘early November’.
It was previously revealed allegations had been made regarding the airport – with Mr Salmond contacting Scottish Government staff about a possible media inquiry. Miss Sturgeon said she ‘spoke to Mr Salmond about the allegation at the time. He denied it.’
Within her submission, Miss Sturgeon described her 30-year friendship with Mr Salmond – insisting the consequences of the investigation into him had caused her a ‘great deal of personal anguish’ and had led to the breakdown of the relationship.
She has also strongly refuted accusations she was ‘conspiring’ against Mr Salmond during the complaints process.
She said: ‘Indeed it seems to me that what some want to present as a ‘conspiracy’ is in actual fact my refusal to ‘collude’ or ‘cover up’.’
Miss Sturgeon said she did not tell Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans of her meetings with Mr Salmond until June 6, 2018, because she did not want to influence the course of the investigation.
She only informed Mrs Evans of this after receiving a message from Mr Salmond on June 3, 2018, which led her ‘to conclude that legal action by Mr Salmond against the Scottish Government was a serious prospect’. The Holyrood inquiry is examining the Government’s botched probe into two harassment complaints against Mr Salmond. After a judicial review, it was found that the investigation was ‘tainted with apparent bias’.The former SNP leader was then awarded more than £500,000 to cover his legal fees.
Mr Salmond was cleared of 13 charges of sexual assault in March 2020.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Bailie said: ‘The First Minister’s evidence to this committee raises many questions and could be described as having as many holes as a Swiss cheese.’
Fresh wounds in SNP civil war – but key questions go unanswered
Michael Blackley, Political Editor for the Scottish Daily Mail
Nicola Sturgeon says that for 30 years of her life, Alex Salmond was closer to her than anyone outside of her family. But there can be no doubt that relationship is now over.
The long-awaited publication of her evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into the handling of allegations against him is nothing short of explosive – and will stoke the fires of a civil war raging within the SNP, between supporters of the two most dominant figures in the party’s modern-day history.
In her submission, Miss Sturgeon hangs her mentor out to dry. She says he could be ‘challenging to work for’ and admits to occasions when ‘tense situations had to be defused’.
While she insists she did not draw up a new complaints procedure to target him, she does admit to a ‘lingering concern’ about him which dates back to 2017.
The evidence provided will be intensely scrutinised not only by the Holyrood inquiry, but also as part of a probe into whether Miss Sturgeon broke the ministerial code of conduct in relation to what she disclosed about her meetings on this issue.
Some of the revelations raise more questions – and could yet come back to haunt the First Minister.
Miss Sturgeon has since compared falling out with Mr Salmond over sexual harassment claims to ‘losing a loved one’ as she described him as ‘one of the biggest influences of my life’. They are seen together in 2011 after a Scottish election victory
The war between Salmond and Sturgeon
This inquiry was always going to expose the growing rift between Mr Salmond and Miss Sturgeon, as well as the SNP factions which align themselves with them.
After being cleared of 13 sexual assault charges earlier this year – all of which he had strenuously denied – Mr Salmond said evidence that had not been heard in court would ‘see the light of day’.
In pre-trial hearings, his lawyer had lobbied judges for the right to present evidence about an alleged plot against him. This involved claims that key Scottish Government and civil service figures had launched a campaign against Mr Salmond, aimed at exaggerating allegations of sexual misconduct.
Miss Sturgeon’s evidence makes clear that she did play a key role in the introduction of a new harassment procedure, but she rejects any claims of ‘conspiring’ against her predecessor.
She states: ‘I have faced accusations of ‘conspiring’ against Alex Salmond and also of ‘colluding’ with him. I reject in the strongest possible terms both of these suggestions… what some want to present as ‘conspiracy’ is in actual fact my refusal to ‘collude’ or ‘cover up’.’
Miss Sturgeon insists that she did not create the new policy because she had concerns allegations about Mr Salmond could materialise and ‘nor did I, in any way, allow such concern to lead me to limit the scope of the procedure’.
She admits she was aware of a media inquiry from November 2017 about allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr Salmond – and he denied it when she spoke to him about this at the time.
However, she says the episode did leave her with a ‘lingering concern that allegations about Mr Salmond could materialise at some stage’. This will fuel concerns from the Salmond camp that the new procedure was introduced to ‘get’ the former First Minister. Miss Sturgeon is also scathing in comments about what it was like to work with Mr Salmond, saying: ‘Mr Salmond could be challenging to work for and, rightly, he demanded high standards. However, I was present on some occasions when tense situations had to be defused.’
Did Sturgeon mislead Parliament?
Miss Sturgeon previously told MSPs she first learned of complaints about Mr Salmond when he told her, during a meeting at her home, on April 2, 2018.
But her evidence states she had ‘forgotten’ about a previous meeting with Geoff Aberdein, former chief of staff to Mr Salmond, on March 29, in her Scottish parliament office.
She says the discussion ‘covered the fact that Alex Salmond wanted to see me urgently about a serious matter, and I think it did cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’.
She states she had ‘forgotten that this encounter had taken place until I was reminded of it in, I think, late January/early February 2019’.
The disclosure raises crucial questions about whether Miss Sturgeon has been truthful with parliament about how she learned of the allegations, and when.
If she is found to have misled parliament, she would face calls to quit.
Did she breach the ministerial code?
Early last year, Miss Sturgeon referred herself for an official investigation into whether she broke strict Government rules by failing to report details of a series of meetings with Mr Salmond, during which they discussed sexual misconduct allegations against him.
She did not publicly disclose that these meetings had happened. The ministerial code states ministers must ‘arrange for the basic facts’ of meetings concerning Government business to be recorded.
While the investigation was delayed by the criminal case, if Miss Sturgeon is found to have broken the code, she would be under pressure to resign.
Miss Sturgeon’s evidence confirms she was aware that the April 2 meeting was likely to be about Scottish Government business – allegations about a former First Minister. So why did she allow it to take place in her home? And since Scottish Government business was covered, why was it not recorded in her official disclosure of ministerial engagements?
The meeting with Mr Aberdein throws up similar concerns. If she met a former chief of staff to Mr Salmond and mention was made of sexual misconduct allegations, why was the detail of this meeting not officially disclosed?
The pair were friends for 30 years, with the former First Minister serving as a mentor for Miss Sturgeon during her stratospheric rise through Scottish politics. This image was taken in 2014
What happens next?
The First Minister says in her written evidence that she ‘tried to do the right thing’, adding: ‘I sought all along to act in good faith and to strike the right balance of judgment.’
The inquiry will conclude on whether she has done the right thing. She will then face the investigation into whether she breached the ministerial code.
Both inquiries could be bruising for her personally and politically – and could further widen the deep divides which threaten to tear her party apart.