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22 March 2021

Nicola Sturgeon can breathe easier thanks to her incompetent opponents

The First Minister’s parliamentary foes set events up perfectly – for the First Minister. 

By Stephen Bush

Exonerated in full? The Scottish government’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, James Hamilton, has concluded that Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code. At a stroke this reduces the conclusion of the Scottish Parliament’s own inquiry into the government’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment against Alex Salmond to a partisan footnote – a parliamentary inquiry in which the SNP’s opponents held that a majority concluded she may have “inadvertently” breached the ministerial code, but could not go further than that, while an independent and respected lawyer has given her the all-clear.

That’s the conclusion you’d take from looking at the immediate headlines and, particularly, the all-important push notifications from the various news apps, most importantly and significantly the BBC News app. These notifications are the ones that shape public opinion and understanding of events, not least because they consciously and unconsciously filter through to how the broadcasters cover the day’s news, particularly the all-important news-in-brief on music radio. 

But when you look at the detail of Hamilton’s statement, while he has given the First Minister the all-clear on the vitally important question of whether or not she broke the ministerial code, he has also cast doubt on her account of her meetings with Alex Salmond. Questions over the effectiveness of Sturgeon’s response to the allegations against her predecessor and former mentor do remain unanswered. 

The First Minister is, however, blessed in her enemies, at least those outside the SNP. The central problem the Scottish Conservatives have had is that they have never been able to pick a case and prosecute it effectively: is the problem that the Scottish government failed to tackle sexual harassment properly, is the problem a wide-ranging conspiracy to bring down Salmond, or something else entirely? 

All too often, it has been clear that their real problem is Sturgeon’s political success and that their main aim has been to use the inquiry to bring her premiership to an abrupt end. That means that the only bar that Hamilton’s inquiry ever needed to clear to give the First Minister breathing space was that of the ministerial code. That should be enough for her to dismiss the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations as an unserious and partisan affair. 

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That criticism of the Holyrood inquiry will probably be a fair one: because while there may well have been serious and coherent criticisms to be made of the Scottish government in general, and Sturgeon in particular, her parliamentary opponents have never seriously focused on the issue, instead preferring to use it as a stick to beat the First Minister with. An inquiry that might have done real danger to the Scottish government’s reputation for competence has instead set itself up to be easily dismissed and overshadowed. Sturgeon’s future will ultimately be decided by the question of whether her internal opponents are more skilful than her external ones.