Nicola Sturgeon still must beware the Ides of March

Credit: PA

Nicola Sturgeon really is extraordinarily popular. 

She is leading a party that’s been in government for 14 years and she’s been first minister since 2014, yet poll after poll gives her approval ratings that would make her the envy of any party leader in the UK.

Part of that success can be explained by Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure having remained remarkably unblemished for a politician in power for so long. 

That changed this year.

She now stands accused of breaking Scotland’s Ministerial Code of Conduct multiple times, most seriously by misleading parliament about what she knew, and when, of an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against her predecessor and one-time mentor, Alex Salmond.

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond at the Scottish Parliament. Credit: PA

He was acquitted of 13 counts of sexual harassment and abuse at the High Court last year, and it is now Nicola Sturgeon and her government in the dock answering for their conduct in front of a Holyrood inquiry. 

Quite suddenly, she’s had to fight for her political future.

But fight she did.

In a marathon eight-hour session of evidence in front of a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, the first minister was challenged about how her government managed to mishandle the allegations of two women who came forward with claims. 

We heard how Nicola Sturgeon’s government botched the investigation so badly it was ruled “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias” in court.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the committee Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/PA

The way they went about it was akin to a judge meeting accusers in a case before the defendant had even been told what was going on - and ultimately when Alex Salmond sued the Scottish government it cost the tax payer almost one million pounds.

This forms part of an allegation against Nicola Sturgeon: that her government knew their case was doomed but went ahead anyway, potentially misusing public funds which would be another breach of the Ministerial Code.

Nicola Sturgeon rejects the accusation she broke the Ministerial Code.

For the first time ever, we have been able to see the Scottish government’s legal advice and it does indeed show the senior legal counsel was warning that the ‘least worst’ option would be to concede.

Instead, the Lord Advocate, who is the head of Scotland’s prosecution services and also part of Nicola Sturgeon’s government, advised them to ignore this and there was “no question” of giving in.

In a statement just released on Thursday night, Alex Salmond’s team have criticised the Scottish government for “the piecemeal release of these extraordinary legal documents.” 

In fact, the former first minister’s side allege there is more to come and evidence is being suppressed, saying: “The Committee has not been given all of the documents by the government but if they serve a notice on Mr Salmond’s lawyers they will be provided with the ones they hold. 

“The Crown Office have blocked their release up until now.”

Nicola Sturgeon has denied all of the allegations against her. She accepts errors were made, but refused to call for any resignations, putting it down to honest mistakes with the best of intentions.

Every single question and allegation was addressed in front of the inquiry, even if she didn’t answer satisfactorily for all of the committee members.

Watch Peter Smith's report from the day of Ms Sturgeon's evidence:

On the question of misleading parliament on when she first learned about the allegations against her predecessor - a resignation matter if confirmed to be true - Nicola Sturgeon’s defence is that she “forgot” about the first meeting.

It was put to her that this is “hard to believe.” She agreed, but said that’s simply what happened.

She spoke clearly, in plain English, appealing for empathy on matters where she can’t quite recall what happened at specific meetings with absolute clarity. On some matters she lacks supporting evidence for her defence, but instead spoke about “how difficult this has been” for her and what she has “been through.”

Former first minister Alex Salmond is sworn in before giving evidence to the committee Credit: Andy Buchanan/PA

Compare that with Alex Salmond’s six-hour evidence session - he was clinical, forensic.

The former first minister could remember meetings to the day, sometimes the hour. He recalled communications with precision.

Alex Salmond doesn’t like the word “conspiracy” because of the obvious connotations, but he has used his evidence to the Holyrood inquiry to expose what he has described as a plot to have him thrown in prison. 

It was, he said, hatched by a corrupt clique at the top of Scottish democracy.

In her evidence, Nicola Sturgeon denied being part of any scheme to “get” Alex Salmond. But her predecessor is equally clear he isn’t out to get her either. 

Alex Salmond speaking outside after a court ruled the Scottish government acted unlawfully regarding sexual harassment complaints. Credit: PA

He took aim at the leadership within institutions: the Scottish civil service; the Scottish Government; and Scotland’s prosecution service, the Crown Office. 

Mr Salmond has attempted to address what went wrong in the investigation against him. He believes he knows who is to blame and doesn’t think it’ll take a revolution in Scotland to fix the problem. 

Some accountability and a few resignations would be a start for him. He even named Scotland’s Permanent Secretary and Lord Advocate specifically. 

He is also clearly unhappy with the conduct of senior officials in Nicola Sturgeon’s government, and the role of her husband Peter Murrell, who happens to be chief executive of the SNP. 

SNP chief executive Peter Murrell has already appeared before the inquiry. Credit: PA

It was also clear from Nicola Sturgeon’s testimony that she doesn’t mind attacking Alex Salmond publicly for what she called “inappropriate behaviour,” even though he has been cleared of charges in court. 

Conversely, Alex Salmond avoided going after Nicola Sturgeon on a personal level. To the surprise of many, he rejected the opportunity to say she should be among those he believes must resign. 

That, he said, is not a matter for him to decide.

It is likely to be determined by another man: James Hamilton QC, former chief of public prosecutions in Ireland, who has now been assigned the task of determining whether the First Minister did break Ministerial Code.

The Holyrood inquiry will express a view on this key question, but it is the verdict of this separate, independent, QC-led inquiry that carries the most credence.

Both must return their findings before Scotland goes into an election campaign in a matter of weeks.

The timing, rather ominously for politicians, coincides with the ‘Ides of March.’

Nicola Sturgeon, pictured with Mr Salmond in 2014. Credit: PA

The SNP would rather not be starting that campaign fighting fires, and a damning result for Nicola Sturgeon from these inquiries could hurt the party’s result on May 6 when polls open.

The SNP need a majority in May’s election to claim a mandate for having a second referendum on Scottish independence - the party’s raison d’etre. 

It is, however, incredibly difficult to secure a majority in the Scottish Parliament given it includes a proportional representation voting system.

Only once in the parliament’s 20 year history has a majority been achieved - by the SNP in 2011 under Alex Salmond who then delivered the independence referendum of 2014. 

Gaining a majority almost means cheating the system. Polls say the SNP can do it again this year, but even a slight dent in their support could reduce their chances enormously. 

The fallout from that is quite simple: no pro-independence majority equals no independence referendum any time soon. 

Then there would be a post-mortem about a perceived missed opportunity to capitalise on Scottish independence soaring high in consistent polls.

Fingers would be pointed at Nicola Sturgeon and her husband and, once again, she would have questions asked about her political future.

That’s even if she wants to stick around for five more years in the Scottish Parliament with no referendum to push for.

Nicola Sturgeon hopes to, once again, be putting a Scottish independence referendum vote at Westminster's door. Credit: PA

That’s not to say a second referendum is guaranteed by a majority, because it would ultimately require approval from the UK government.

A Holyrood majority is necessary, though, to even pitch a compelling case for the prime minister listening to Scottish democracy. 

First, though, the SNP needs Nicola Sturgeon to be completely cleared of breaking the Ministerial Code. That will go a long way to securing that all-important majority in May.

Then they will start knocking down the doors of Downing Street, with the first minister leading the charge.

Winning this election would solve a lot of problems for the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon.

Then it would be a case of “Alex who?”