The war between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon could be catastrophic for the SNP

If the sexual misconduct allegations against Salmond are not proven, his successor will be left helplessly exposed. 

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Let’s be clear: if Alex Salmond is, as he insists, innocent of the sexual misconduct allegations levelled against him then he deserves every sympathy. He may be a divisive figure, but being accused of crimes you did not commit is an appalling state of affairs.

He was, plainly, within his rights to legally challenge the process used by the Scottish government to investigate the complaints made against him by two female civil servants. This week a court ruled the process had been “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias” because the investigating officer had “prior involvement” with the complainants.

If Salmond is guilty, though – and the police continue to investigate the original complaints – then we must arrive at a different conclusion. Given his aggressive public campaign against the accusations and the Scottish government, given the undoubted impact on the women involved, and given the damage he is doing to Nicola Sturgeon and wider SNP unity, his reputation should and will never recover.

Salmond’s combative approach to the situation should surprise no one – he has behaved exactly as we would expect him to. He is a lifelong slugger, a streetfighter who has scrapped his way through decades of top-level politics. There has been no belt below which he would not hit, no insult left unrevenged, no enemy left unconfronted. By placing him in this vulnerable position, the Scottish government guaranteed a mean and messy denouement.

His tactics – and he is good at tactics – have been to obscure the grim nature of the allegations by going after flaws in the process. His crowdfunding of £100,000 to cover his legal fees may leave a bitter taste in the mouth – Salmond is by most people’s standards well-off – but it has been effective. The step seems to have been made for political as much as financial reasons, to show that even amid this crisis he could command the loyalty of independence supporters. And they flocked to him – 4,000 people donated.

His latest tactic, having won his case on a technicality, is to force the resignation of the Scottish government’s permanent secretary, Leslie Evans. Evans drew up new procedures for handling sexual harassment claims shortly before the allegations against Salmond were made early last year.

Salmond and Sturgeon are now at war over Evans’s future. The former first minister says his victory is an “abject humiliation” for the Scottish government and insists Evans must “consider her position”. The current First Minister, who appointed the permanent secretary, and who signed off the new harassment procedures, is standing by her woman.

Salmond’s higher-profile supporters have upped the ante, accusing the government of “character assassination” and a “witch hunt”. Kenny MacAskill, Salmond’s former justice secretary, attacked “a coterie surrounding the SNP leadership”, which insisted “not one blemish must be allowed to be cast upon [Sturgeon]… and any who might taint her are to be driven out, whether by leaks to the press or overt actions.”

And this is where the matter moves into especially dangerous territory for the SNP and its future. “Salmond vs Sturgeon” is the headline – and the reality – the party has been desperate to avoid, but which is now unavoidable. Sturgeon is in hot water anyway, because she held five discussions with Salmond about the allegations, including two meetings at her home, at which no minutes were kept. The opposition parties say this breaks the ministerial code of conduct, while Sturgeon insists – unconvincingly, it must be said – that the code does not apply as the conversations were in her capacity as SNP leader.

The truth is that Sturgeon now needs the allegations against her predecessor to be proved. To have botched the investigation, throwing further stress on the complainants, is bad enough. If the police find there is no case to answer then she and Evans will be left hopelessly exposed – Evans would surely have to resign.

At stake are Sturgeon’s integrity and her reputation for competence, both things that are harder to secure than they are to lose. With a closely fought election due in 2021, anything that damages the public perception of the First Minister’s qualities threatens to be catastrophic for the Nats. The opposition parties know this and are in for the kill.

At the centre of it all, lost somewhere in the smoke created by the politics, the tactics and the political panic, are two women who have, it seems, been ill-treated on all sides. One would hope that, however bad things get, that is not forgotten.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).