Nicola Sturgeon only speaks out about sleaze when she has no choice - Euan McColm

He would be entitled to our pity were he not so contemptible.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford is currently sinking into a quicksand of sleaze over his appalling handling of the case of a young staff member sexually harassed by a senior MP.

After days of (uncommon) silence, Blackford submitted himself to television interviews on the matter on Thursday. The results of his decision were entirely unedifying.

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Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives for First Minster's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday June 23, 2022. Picture: Press Association

He clumsily dodged questions, waffling about due process and learning lessons. He looked and sounded like a little man trapped in a corner.

Blackford finds himself in trouble after a series of events that - had he a scintilla of decency - would cause him to resign his post.

So how did Backford get where he is?

Back in 2016 - when the SNP’s Westminster group was led by Angus Robertson - a 19-year-old member of staff was sexually harassed by nationalist MP Patrick Grady at a Christmas Party. There was unwanted touching and the staffer later spoke of being bullied.

In 2017, an anonymous letter was sent to then speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, outlining what had happened. In the same year, Grady was promoted to the position of SNP Chief Whip.

By 2018, the SNP - now led at Westminster by Blackford after Robertson’s defeat in the 2017 General Election - was fully aware of the young man’s complaints.

What happened next will never lose its power to shock.

Blackford called Grady’s victim to his office to discuss the situation. When he arrived, Grady - the man who had harassed him, for Christ’s sake - was waiting.

The young man was offered a tearful apology by the man who had harassed him. It was a meeting that left the victim - unsurprisingly - deeply distressed. What Blackford was thinking, we may never know.

Grady then continued as SNP Chief Whip, leaving his victim to conclude that the party did not at all take his experience seriously.

Last year, Grady’s victim plucked up the considerable courage required to approach SNP headquarters to discuss his case. He was told there was nothing the party could do.

And then the whole sordid mess became public and Grady quit as chief whip. An investigation was launched and Grady was found guilty by parliamentary authorities of having harassed the staffer. He was handed a rather meagre two-day suspension from the House of Commons. The SNP matched this with a vanishingly brief suspension of the whip from Grady.

Unsatisfactory as those sanctions might be, this might have been an end of the matter had a whistle-blower not leaked a recording of an SNP group meeting during which Blackford urged MPs to rally round Grady. He needed their support, right now, and hoped that would be forthcoming. MP Amy Callaghan was caught backing this call. She later apologised for her words. Fellow MP Marion Fellows has said nothing about her own remarks encouraging support for Grady.

Grady’s victim has now accused Blackford of bullying him after he raised his complaint.

This whole nauseating situation would, in a sane world, be more than enough to end the careers of Grady and Blackford.

But these dreadful men are not the only people who have let down this victim.

The buck stops with party leader Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m afraid her record on such matters is far from impressive.

Back in 2008, evidence about then SNP candidate Bill Walker’s violence towards his ex-wives was passed to Sturgeon’s office. Nothing was done and Walker went on to become MSP for Dunfermline in 2011.

It was only when details about Walker’s behaviour were made public in 2012 that the SNP acted and expelled him. A year later, he was jailed for a year after being convicted of 23 assaults involving three ex-wives and a step-daughter.

In 2009, when Sturgeon was deputy First Minister, managers at Edinburgh Airport contacted Angus Robertson to raise concerns about then SNP leader Alex Salmond’s behaviour during his dealings with female staff members. Sturgeon, apparently was oblivious to this.

Remarkably, though rumours about Salmond’s behaviour were widespread at that time, Sturgeon heard nothing about them. She may have been the only person at Holyrood to remain in the dark.

When it emerged in 2017 that her children’s minister Mark McDonald had send inappropriate text messages to female members of staff, Sturgeon’s first instinct was to defend him as a “good MSP”. It was only when that line became unsustainable that McDonald was suspended by the party. He later quit the SNP and sat as an independent until stepping down at last year’s election.

In 2020, it was revealed that then Scottish finance secretary Derek McKay had bombarded a 16-year-old boy with inappropriate text messages.

What was the first action taken by Sturgeon’s staff? It was to try to shut the story down, arguing against publication.

A pattern emerges.

Questioned at Holyrood on Thursday about the meeting at which SNP MPs discussed the need to support Grady, Sturgeon described the situation as “utterly unacceptable”. This, I think, was accurate.

But, time and again, the First Minister seems only to speak out about these issues when she has no choice. The suspicion lingers that Sturgeon would rather all these grubby matters were kept secret.

A key thread of the SNP’s story when it rose to power was that the party represented something different from the sleazy parties that dominated our politics. A vote for the nationalists was a vote for something better, something more decent.

That line of spin has long since worn out.

Now, the big question is whether Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP is a safe place for anyone to work.

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