Alex Salmond case: How likely is an inquiry into Nicola Sturgeon’s actions?

Nicola Sturgeon (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Nicola Sturgeon could face some of her most difficult days and weeks as First Minister as pressure increases on the SNP leader to refer herself to an investigation over her handling of the Alex Salmond case.

Mr Salmond won a significant legal victory over the Scottish Government earlier this week when a judge at Scotland’s highest court ruled they had acted ‘unlawfully’ in how they handled allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

The former First Minister - who has stringently denied the allegations levelled against him – has demanded the resignation of top civil servant Leslie Evans.

Instead, it is his successor Nicola Sturgeon on whom most political pressure appears to be – with a bruising First Minister’s Questions session at Holyrood yesterday confirming the strength of feeling among opposition politicians.

Labour leader Richard Leonard has written to the First Minister demanding that she refer herself to an independent panel to investigate whether or not she has breached the ministerial code.

READ MORE: Sturgeon denies interfering in Salmond probe

At the centre of that call is Mr Leonard’s belief that Nicola Sturgeon acted improperly during meetings with Mr Salmond while an investigation is ongoing.

We look at how likely that inquiry is to take place, and what damage it could do to the First Minister.

Self-Referral

While accepting the recommendation of Richard Leonard might seem like a turkey taking up an offer to vote for Christmas, Ms Sturgeon and her allies might see benefit in referring herself over her meetings.

READ MORE: Salmond refers Scottish Government to data watchdog

If they believe any inquiry from the panel on the Scottish Ministerial Code (which is made up of former Presiding Officers and Civil Servants) will clear the First Minister, they could yet see it as a viable strategy.

In naked political terms, it will also crucially buy Nicola Sturgeon time, as any report could take weeks or even months to publish.

There could, ironically, be a lesson to learn from her predecessor as Ms Sturgeon was deputy First Minister when Alex Salmond referred himself to the panel.

A bitter row over the answers Mr Salmond gave over legal advice his government had received on the EU in the run up to the independence referendum led to a ministerial code inquiry.

While Mr Salmond was chastised for the ‘muddled’ nature of his answers, the inquiry ultimately cleared him of breaching the ministerial code.

Parliamentary arithmetic

As Nicola Sturgeon stressed repeatedly during yesterday’s testy session of FMQs, referral to the panel is considered ‘a matter for parliament’.

Richard Leonard himself has given an early indication of his plans should the First Minister refuse to refer herself to the panel.

He told Good Morning Scotland: “If she self-refers, then that starts that process off. If she refuses to self-refer, then I think Parliament will try and take matters into its own hands.”

Parliament, as Mr Leonard noted, has more non-SNP MSPs than SNP MSPs, and if opposition politicians unite, then Holyrood could establish an investigatory committee.

If all 62 SNP MSPs vote against an investigation, then Labour will have to persuade Conservative and Liberal Democrat support, as well as at least some of the Green group, to back a probe into Nicola Sturgeon’s conduct.

If it comes down to a close vote, the position of Mark McDonald, who himself was censured by the parliament after allegations of sexual misconduct, could be crucial.

The outcome

There is clearly pressure from all sides on Nicola Sturgeon, with the news today that Alex Salmond had reported the Scottish Government to a data watchdog another unwelcome update.

Ms Sturgeon could be tempted to seek exoneration by self referral, which again would potentially allow her breathing space as she continues to come in for criticism over her conduct as an inquiry takes up time.

That path is littered with pitfalls, as an inquiry could yet find that the First Minister has breached the ministerial code.

However, there might not yet be a parliamentary majority in place for Nicola Sturgeon to avoid an inquiry, with Labour in particularly clearly planning to step up their demands for a probe.

Whether by self-referral or parliamentary process, a probe into the actions of Nicola Sturgeon now seems increasingly likely.

The results remain anyone’s guess.