Nicola Sturgeon's Janey Godley impersonation won't necessarily save her from the fate of leaders held to high standards – John McLellan

Haters gonna hate and believers gonna believe. The immediate reaction to the marathon grilling of Nicola Sturgeon at Wednesday’s harassment inquiry hearing was a hardening of positions but a consensus that she had emerged intact.

Nicola Sturgeon appeared to turn into her social media alter-ego Janey Godley, above, as she turned on the couthy innocence at the Salmond inquiry hearing, according to John McLellan (Picture: John Devlin)
Nicola Sturgeon appeared to turn into her social media alter-ego Janey Godley, above, as she turned on the couthy innocence at the Salmond inquiry hearing, according to John McLellan (Picture: John Devlin)

She was certainly back to her most aggressive by First Minister’s Questions the following day.

Compared to the flurry of messaging activity on pro-Union channels after Alex Salmond’s session last Friday and Tuesday’s document dump, Wednesday night was quiet and it was clear the temperature had dropped.

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That contrasted with what looked like a pre-planned wave of Nationalist social media posts with SNP voters announcing they had joined the party because of Ms Sturgeon’s performance.

Those with established views matter less than the undecided middle, with Strathclyde University’s election guru Sir John Curtice reckoning only a four per cent swing will deny the SNP an overall majority in May.

The past week’s events have turned the election from being a proxy independence vote into a judgement on Ms Sturgeon’s performance which, with her commanding approval ratings, suited the SNP just fine until a week last Friday and helps explain why the Conservative leadership jumped the gun with a no-confidence call.

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But now there is enough in the open about the Salmond affair for it to be about a lot more than how well she handles Covid press conferences, which is perhaps why Ian Blackford was back talking about a referendum the next day.

At times on Wednesday, it seemed Ms Sturgeon was becoming like her social media alter-ego Janey Godley as she turned on the couthy innocence, but while “ma head wis spinnin’” might resonate with supporters, regulated conduct in government is not based on retrospective presentation.

Before voters return their verdicts on May 6, the opinion that matters most is that of ex-Irish director of public prosecutions James Hamilton QC, and the emotional Phil Oakey “I’m only human, bound to make mistakes” defence should cut no mustard when he decides whether Ms Sturgeon broke the Ministerial Code.

Ms Sturgeon’s explanations did not prove beyond doubt the code had not been broken, and key questions remain unanswered. How, for example, can it be credible to claim there was “no intention” to withhold information from the committee when it took the threat of losing a no-confidence vote in John Swinney to release crucial papers at the 11th hour?

If her government had nothing to hide why was even that release incomplete? Why did Ms Sturgeon say former ministers were always included in the harassment policy, but then that they were added later? Why was it not appropriate to refer allegations of a criminal information leak to the police, on the basis of protecting identities, but OK for police to be involved when the judicial review went wrong and the woman had not given permission? Why did the Crown Office seek to stop MSPs discussing material The Spectator magazine was allowed to publish? The list goes on.

Edinburgh University’s Professor James Hamilton, no unionist fanboy, summed Wednesday up perfectly in Holyrood Magazine: “Sturgeon’s performance was a masterclass. As an exercise in open government, transparency and accountability, her performance and that of her government throughout this inquiry was lamentable. As the best debater in Holyrood, with skills honed over a career in adversarial politics, she knows how to parry, obfuscate and shape agendas.”

It may well be very upsetting to learn that your ‘bezzie’ of 30 years has been accused of the most appalling criminal behaviour, but again we are being asked to accept that the meetings of March 29 or April 2, 2018, were the first Ms Sturgeon had any inkling of allegations about Mr Salmond’s behaviour.

But look at the body language in all those clips of the two of them together; you don’t have to be Desmond Morris to see a marked change in the way she reluctantly met his embraces in 2014, compared to the genuine joy at Prestonfield House in 2007 as they celebrated their first election triumph. She would deny it, but that might be gaslighting, as it’s known these days.

There is no evidence Ms Sturgeon was involved in a plot to “get” Mr Salmond, but that doesn’t mean the events which led to his trial and acquittal weren’t orchestrated. After all, Henry II didn’t need to order the execution of Thomas a Becket for loyal knights to murder him on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral.

Everyone in the Scottish political and media bubble knows why Mr Salmond alleges the events which led to his criminal trial and acquittal were orchestrated but the legal, and indeed moral, constraints are such that the evidence cannot be fully explored in public.

But Mr Hamilton’s investigation is in private, and, while it would be inappropriate to second guess his conclusions, he is far less constrained than the bickering and politically divided Holyrood inquiry committee with its hands tied behind its back.

Let’s accept Ms Sturgeon’s story that her head was indeed spinning at the enormity of the allegations, that one big meeting did indeed trump the importance of another in her memory, and that there was confusion about what was government business and what was party, and that her husband Peter Murrell didn’t know if he was coming or going with all those big SNP figures shuffling around in his dining room when he was trying to make his tea.

But this is all mitigation, and mitigation buttered absolutely no parsnips when she helped hound Henry McLeish, the late David McLetchie and Wendy Alexander out of office and the standards to which Ms Sturgeon held each one of them cannot be lowered to suit her circumstances.

Unlike that trio, those whose actions have caused her far more reputational damage than any political adversary are still in post, but perhaps their departure would be seen as an admission of weakness, or even guilt. One way or another, Wednesday was far from the final twist.

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