She had answered every question put to her, it was claimed, and the matter was now settled. It was even announced that as many as 10,000 new members had joined the SNP following her appearance – a claim which is as unsubstantiated as it is incredible.
The reality, as was evident to anyone actually watching the session, was somewhat different. There were more than 50 occasions when the First Minister said that she had “forgotten” or “could not recall” details of meetings, discussions, or documents, despite her having many months to prepare her defence and set her ducks in a row.
There were two key areas of evidence where the First Minister’s responses were particularly unconvincing. The first was in relation to the meetings held with Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, whose version of events directly contradicted that given by the First Minister.
Crucially, the Aberdein evidence is corroborated by written statements from Duncan Hamilton and Kevin Pringle, two significant figures in the SNP. Despite being challenged on the matter, Nicola Sturgeon was unable to produce any names to corroborate her own version of events.
Legal advice produced after Sturgeon’s evidence
It was the same in relation to the claim that the name of a complainant had been given to Geoff Aberdein by someone in the Scottish Government – an appalling breach of trust. The First Minister’s attempts to explain this away were unconvincing in the face of the corroborating evidence produced for Mr Aberdein’s story. Even in relation to these two points, Nicola Sturgeon’s evidence provides no resolution on the matter.
There is a third area where the evidence presented by the First Minister fell short on the credibility scale, and that was in connection with the defence of the judicial review brought by Alex Salmond, and the question of whether the Scottish government followed the legal advice it had been given by external counsel.
For months, the inquiry committee has been demanding release of the external legal advice, and for months this call was resisted by the SNP government.
Even two votes in the Scottish Parliament on the matter at the end of last year were disregarded by the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney. It was only when a threat of a no-confidence vote was brought forward by the Scottish Conservatives that finally Swinney relented and agreed to publish the legal advice, some of which was produced to the committee just the evening before Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance.
What the documents produced reveal was that the case in serious trouble from October 31, 2018, when the Scottish government’s counsel, Roddy Dunlop QC and Christine O’Neill, were advising concession as a real option. By December 6, they were advising that conceding would be the “least worst option”. And by December 19, they were ready to throw in the towel, as a result of the catastrophic fashion in which the Scottish government had instructed them to defend the case.
Whilst I was able to put questions to Nicola Sturgeon on the legal advice which had been disclosed to us by Tuesday evening last week, it was clear even then that this was not the whole picture. On Friday afternoon, a new tranche of papers was produced by the Scottish government, some two days after the First Minister had given her evidence. It became immediately apparent why the committee had not been allowed to see these before she presented herself for questioning.
Major gaps in the record remain
A joint note by counsel dated December 17 was particularly damning, saying that their advice had been “discounted”, effectively ignored by the Scottish government. They warned all concerned, including the First Minister, to be absolutely certain that they wished them to “plough on regardless notwithstanding the concerns outlined”. The government was advised of the large bill of expenses that would inevitably arise from proceeding with the case, and counsel cautioned that they had considered “very seriously whether we were bound to withdraw from acting”.
All this is significant, because the Scottish government, contrary to the advice given, continued to defend the case beyond December 17. It did not concede until January 8, running up an additional cost of between £100,00 and £200,000 to the taxpayer in the process.
Despite the horrors that have been revealed in the advice thus far published, there are still major gaps in the record. No minute has yet been produced of the consultation that took place on November 13 between external counsel and the First Minister.
There were in fact 12 days between September 2018 and January 2019 on which consultations with counsel were held, for which not a single scrap of paper has yet been published. And yet, as every lawyer knows, it is inconceivable that notes would not have been taken at these vital meetings.
The Scottish government’s whole approach to the Salmond inquiry has been characterised by obstruction; only producing vital documentation at the last minute, and when left with no alternative.
We now know why Swinney was so reluctant to see the legal advice published, so damaging it is to the Scottish government’s case. It suggests that the First Minister was prepared to waste public funds in continuing the defence of a court action against Alex Salmond even when it was beyond doubt that she would lose.
And it exposes the deceit on the part of the SNP government in trying to conceal these vital papers from committee members.
Already we see from opinion polls that trust in the SNP, and in the First Minister, is being eroded by the manner in which the Scottish government have conducted this whole affair. If the SNP pay the price at the ballot box, they will only have themselves to blame.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife