Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code over her handling of the Alex Salmond harassment case, an independent investigation by James Hamilton QC, the Scottish government’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, has found.
That’s the crucial conclusion that has made headlines this morning, and that is an important outcome for Scotland’s First Minister. She is no longer fighting to stay in her position, and will inevitably survive the vote of no confidence today (the Greens have confirmed they won’t be voting against her given Hamilton’s findings) and her position is, to all intents and purposes, safe.
In this respect, Hamilton’s findings about Sturgeon have some parallels with another legal process involving her former political ally almost exactly a year ago. Alex Salmond was cleared of all of the sexual offences charges against him in his high-profile trial; he, similar to Sturgeon, got the result that he wanted. But in both cases, not everything in the outcome of the legal process is as flattering for the First Minister or former first minister. As Stephen Bush notes in his snap take on the Sturgeon outcome, Hamilton clears Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code but casts doubt on the effectiveness of her handling of the allegations against her predecessor, and questions over her conversations with Salmond remain unanswered.
This is also the conclusion of the Holyrood committee of MSPs investigating the affair. As was previously leaked, the committee, dismissed as partisan by the SNP leadership, has found that Sturgeon misled it, that her account of finding out about the allegations was “hard to believe”, and that her handling of the complaints was “seriously flawed”.
Salmond’s defence made use of the argument that some of his behaviour was “inappropriate”, to quote his own lawyer, but not criminal. The former first minister “could have been a better man”, his lawyer said: “He behaved badly, I’m not here to defend him, but attempted rape? It doesn’t fit.” When Salmond was cleared of all the charges against him, the public conversation didn’t register that the former first minister had behaved at times in a way that was “inappropriate” by his own lawyer’s admission.
Both SNP titans have headlines they are happy with, and the public conversation won’t fully absorb the more complex aspects around the edges of that: “inappropriate” behaviour from Salmond, and a potentially ineffective handling of the allegations against him by Sturgeon. At the core is the same problem: a failure by the SNP’s opponents to treat this as a serious story about real women bringing serious allegations, rather than a scandal in Scotland’s ruling party that would, somehow, in ways the opposition parties hadn’t quite worked out, destroy the SNP.