Nicola Sturgeon went into Wednesday’s (3 March) high-profile Holyrood inquiry with her job and her reputation apparently on the line. When she emerged, an exhausting and exhaustive eight hours later, her peg, to use a Scottish term, was looking somewhat less shoogly.
The First Minister was, for the most part, on formidable form, by turns earnest, angry, exasperated, emotional and even wryly amused. She was dressed all in red, which sent a message of strength. She had an answer for everything, defending her government’s investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond with the suppleness, surgical precision and occasional shiftiness of the lawyer she once was. The standout interrogator was once again Labour’s deputy leader Jackie Baillie, the committee’s Torquemada, who dug deep with a series of finely honed questions. But even her excavations produced more heat than light.
To her critics, of course, Sturgeon flunked the test, while to her supporters she aced it. Twitter reacted as Twitter will. Regardless, her achievements on the day can be easily numbered. Hard questions about the government’s bungled handling of the legal processes involving Salmond were either answered with conviction or nimbly deflected. She professed to be in the dark over the leaking of various details relating to the complaints and the complainers. The government’s failure over many months to provide the committee with requested evidence and papers was largely due to legal restrictions – indeed, slightly cheekily, she “shared the committee’s frustration”.
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Accusations that there had been a broad conspiracy to bring down her predecessor, even to the extent of his imprisonment, were dismissed as “absurd” – she had “no motive, intention, desire to ‘get’ Alex Salmond”. Text messages between SNP officials that were said to show complicity against Salmond were nothing of the sort, when they were read in full. Her staff had not been trawling for further incidents and accusations to bolster the criminal case, as Salmond’s allies have suggested; rather, they had been supporting one another, faithfully responding to police inquiries and perhaps, at worst, indulging in occasional gossip. All grey areas remained resolutely, unshiftably grey.
Sturgeon admitted to a single, big failure: the disastrous attempt to defend the government’s complaints process against a Salmond challenge in the civil courts, which cost the Scottish government more than £500,000. Sturgeon apologised for this “very serious mistake” and said she deeply regretted that “women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost”. Even then, she insisted the government was right to pursue the case until its lawyers warned it was going to lose.
Having conceded this much, she was done with conceding. She had another mission. Following Salmond’s own appearance before the committee on 26 February, in which he spoke of the “hurt” and “wounding” he has suffered, the First Minister wanted to put us right about his character. And she wanted to remind us of the #MeToo climate in which the accusations surfaced.
Sturgeon recalled how Salmond was “a tough guy to work with” and that she’d had to step in at times “when he’d crossed the line” in his treatment of staff. This was taken to be understatement. Of the now infamous meeting between the pair at her home on 2 April 2018, where Salmond first explained the allegations to her, “what he described constituted, in my view, deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part”.
In her powerful opening statement, Sturgeon said: “Alex spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him – and I don’t doubt that. I have thought often about the impact on him. He was someone I cared about for a long time.
“And maybe that’s why on Friday I found myself searching for any sign, any sign at all, that he recognised how difficult this has been for others too. First and foremost for women who believed his behaviour towards them was inappropriate. But also for those of us who have campaigned with, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend, and who now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.
“That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question. But I know just from what he told me that his behaviour was not always appropriate. And yet across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgement of that. I can only hope that in private the reality might be different.”
She stood by her refusal to intervene in the case at any point in a way that might have made life easier for her old boss and friend. “As First Minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connection to get what he wants.”
There will be holes enough in her evidence and doubts about its veracity for the committee to issue a fairly damning report in a few weeks. But it seems ever less likely there is a smoking gun that can force Sturgeon from office. A separate inquiry by QC James Hamilton into whether she has breached the ministerial code might prove a thornier prospect, but still, with a Holyrood election in May the SNP will not let their popular leader sink.
In the past week we have seen Scotland’s two most gifted, heavyweight politicians turn in remarkable displays. They might be equally talented, but they can’t both be right. It seems to me that Sturgeon has the more compelling arguments and the stronger appeal to our humanity. She talked of decades-long relationships being ripped apart, and of how friends and colleagues had found the whole experience difficult, as in so many of the cases linked to the #MeToo movement. It was, she said, “a reflection of the invidious, almost impossible position a lot of people found themselves in”.
The verdicts will come in, but late on Wednesday afternoon, as the session drew to a close, Sturgeon offered what I found to be a convincing one: “Did I deal with all this perfectly? Did I deal with it in a clinical way that in hindsight everyone can absolutely get? Maybe not, but I dealt with it the best I could and people will draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements on that.”