When the electorate of Gordon dumped him in 2017, preferring an unknown Conservative to their famous sitting MP, Alex Salmond quoted an old Jacobite verse to the television cameras: “You have not seen the last of my bonnet and me.”
It was typically defiant, a promise to the independence movement and a warning to Unionist Scotland from a man whose self-regard, even in the humiliation of defeat, remained titanium-tipped. After all, he had twice been leader of the SNP, been first minister for seven years, and in 2014 had taken his movement closer to achieving independence than anyone had a right to expect. Salmond was a legend, nowhere more so than in the Valhalla of his own mind.
One wondered then why a man in his 60s – he’s now 66, a pensioner – was so set on a political return. His big moments – and what moments – were clearly behind him, he was financially secure, his protégé Nicola Sturgeon had replaced him as first minister and was making a creditable fist of the job, there was a sharp new generation of Nat politicians coming through and a party membership that had swollen to somewhere north of 100,000.
At the time, I raised this question with a friend of his. Salmond was obviously impeccably-connected among Scotland’s wealthy and powerful, I said, so why didn’t he now sit back, collect a few lucrative non-execs, play some golf and embrace the role of revered elder statesman? Even those in whom he had always induced a Trumpish nausea – here I raise my hand – could accept he had earned his rest and his eminence. “You have to understand that Alex cares about status in the way others care about money,” came the response. “He is driven by ego. He could never let go.”
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The truth of those words is bitterly apparent to Nicola Sturgeon today. Salmond is back, bonnet on and musket cocked, and in his sights is not the Union or Westminster but his successor and one-time mentee.
The split between Scottish nationalism’s two most senior figures is now almost two years old, but it continues to grow in intensity and vitriol. The breach, which stems from complaints of sexual misconduct made by women against Salmond from his time as first minister, has proved disastrous for Sturgeon and her Scottish government. First, they were defeated in a civil court over their handling of the complaints process – at a cost to the taxpayer of £500,000 – and then Salmond was cleared of all charges in a criminal court.
As angry as the affair has been, there was nevertheless something newly brutal about last week’s claim by Salmond that Sturgeon had “repeatedly misled” Holyrood. He knows that if proved this would be a breach of the ministerial code of conduct and could force the First Minister’s resignation.
His claims rest on a meeting between the pair on 2 April 2018, at Sturgeon’s home. Sturgeon claims this was the first time she heard of the allegations, and therefore she was acting as leader of the SNP and not First Minister – the meeting went unminuted and the civil service were only informed and called into action afterwards.
Salmond insists that Sturgeon already knew of the complaints, because four days before she had been told of them by one of his aides. Sturgeon has not been helped by evidence given to the Holyrood inquiry into the affair by her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell. Murrell says the couple did not discuss the details of the 2 April meeting because it was government – not party – business. So which was it?
Salmond says Sturgeon’s evidence to the inquiry was “simply untrue”. With both he and the First Minister due to appear in person within weeks, the scene is set for a bruising and bloody denouement. Meanwhile, a QC has been asked by the inquiry specifically to investigate Salmond’s claim that parliament has been misled.
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It still seems hard to believe that Sturgeon will be forced out of her job. Even if her record of events is found to be plain wrong, there may be enough ambiguity in the situation to let her wriggle free. The Nats do accountability up to a point, but they have proved brazenly unwilling in the past to let ministers take the fall. Sturgeon, the ultimate scalp for Unionists, will be protected at all costs.
They will also look to the recent example of Priti Patel. Although an investigation into bullying found the Home Secretary had broken the ministerial code of conduct, Boris Johnson allowed her to remain in post. Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s standards adviser, resigned instead. Johnson’s habitual disregard for norms could prove useful, for once.
Nevertheless, the mood in Holyrood is changing. In an article this week, inquiry member and Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said the stakes were “career-endingly high” for the First Minister. “The optics of this are terrible for Nicola Sturgeon,” he wrote. “I’ve always found the idea that this debacle could end her premiership far-fetched, but… it [looks] for the first time like she really does have something to hide.”
The depth of Salmond’s rage is perhaps most evident in the fact that – Covid permitting – there is due to be a Scottish parliament election in May. Weeks of negative headlines and the potential sanction – and even resignation – of the First Minister is hardly ideal prep for the campaign or likely to impress voters. With the polls showing the SNP currently on course for an overall majority and therefore a mandate for a second independence referendum, the risk to everything Salmond once held dear is apparent. Yet still he presses on.
The party is now split into two unforgiving factions, with Salmond’s supporters angry not just at his treatment, but at what they see as Sturgeon’s timid approach to a second independence referendum and her imperial style of ruling.
The divide is deep, increasingly broad, and spinning out of control. Given the impermeable vanity and iron will of Alex Salmond, it was never likely to end any other way.