Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday rejected accusations from her predecessor Alex Salmond that she had misled the Scottish parliament, saying she acted “appropriately and properly” in response to harassment complaints against her former mentor.
During an unprecedented and often uncomfortable eight-hour grilling in front of a Scottish parliamentary committee, Sturgeon suggested that the “root” of Salmond’s anger against her was her refusal to intervene in a civil service-led investigation into her former mentor’s actions.
“As first minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants,” she said.
Sturgeon’s appearance in front of the committee marked a potentially pivotal moment for her and her dream of leading Scotland to independence from the UK.
Support for independence among voters in Scotland has outstripped backing for the union in most polls over the past year. And Sturgeon’s governing Scottish National party hopes a landslide win in elections in May for the parliament in Edinburgh will provide a platform to push for a second referendum on leaving the UK.
But Wednesday’s session looked unlikely to ease the pressure on Sturgeon sparked by the rift with Salmond, the SNP’s biggest crisis of recent times.
Under legal challenge from the former first minister, the government accepted in January 2019 that its investigation into the complaints against Salmond was unlawful because it was “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, he was acquitted of all of the 13 sexual offences charges against him.
Salmond has accused Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code by misleading parliament — a potential resignation matter — about when she learned about the complaints against him and by failing to properly report meetings he had with her in 2018.
On Wednesday, Sturgeon faced open scepticism from committee members investigating her government’s handling of the complaints, over her claim that she initially forgot a meeting on March 29 2018 with Salmond’s former chief aide.
Sturgeon originally insisted that a subsequent meeting with Salmond at her home on April 2 2018 was when she first learned of the complaints. She last year acknowledged the March meeting, saying it touched on potential harassment allegations and that she had been told then that Salmond might be about to resign from the SNP.
Liberal Democrat committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton suggested many would find it difficult to believe Sturgeon — noted for her mastery of policy detail — would forget such an encounter. “Do you realise how unlikely that sounds?” Cole-Hamilton asked her. “Yeah, I do actually,” Sturgeon replied.
But Sturgeon rejected Salmond’s claim that it had been clear at the March 29 meeting that a subsequent gathering at her home on April 2 was specifically to discuss the complaints against him.
Salmond on Friday said evidence from his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, which has not been published, supported his claim. And in a letter published by the parliament late on Tuesday, former SNP MSP and advocate Duncan Hamilton, who was also present at the meeting, wrote: “When we arrived, everyone in the room knew exactly why we were there.”
Sturgeon insisted that it was not until the April 2 meeting that she had “detailed and actual knowledge” of complaints being investigated by the civil service.
Salmond had told her details of the complaints by two female civil servants against him as well as his own version of one of the incidents involved. The revelations left her head “spinning”, Sturgeon said.
“What he described constituted in my view deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part,” she said.
“It may very well be that I didn’t get everything right . . . but in one of the most invidious political and personal situations I have ever faced, I believe I acted appropriately and properly and that overall I made the best judgments I could,” Sturgeon said.
The first minister also rejected statements by Salmond and Hamilton that she had agreed at the April 2 meeting to intervene in the complaints process on his behalf, although she said she might not have been as “blunt” as she should have been to her longstanding friend and colleague.
“I had no intention of intervening and crucially I did not intervene,” she said.
Jackie Baillie, a Labour member of the committee, said Sturgeon’s account and those of Salmond and Hamilton could not be reconciled. “It is simply unbelievable that the reason for this discrepancy in accounts is that she was trying to let Salmond down gently,” Baillie said in a statement after the session finished.
During her appearance Sturgeon apologised to the women who made the original complaints for the failures of the government’s investigation, but insisted it had been right to create a new procedure that would cover former ministers at a time when the global Me Too movement was raising awareness of unreported sexual misconduct.
She dismissed as “absurd” Salmond’s claim that he had been the subject of malicious plotting by her close associates, saying she had viewed some of the messages and “seen nothing that comes within a million miles of backing up that central assertion”.
Sturgeon also faces continuing pressure over Salmond’s claim that a senior government official gave the name of one of the original complainers to Aberdein before their meeting.
A spokesperson for Salmond said on Wednesday he had lodged a formal complaint with the Scottish government over the allegation.
Sturgeon said she had been assured that the official, who was not identified before the committee, had not divulged the name of the woman.