Analysis: The endgame of the Alex Salmond Inquiry is upon us

Holyrood’s inquiry investigating the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment complaints is set for its final act in the coming fortnight.

The endgame of the Salmond Inquiry is upon us as it reaches its final two weeks of evidence sessions
The endgame of the Salmond Inquiry is upon us as it reaches its final two weeks of evidence sessions

Within the week the Scottish public and MSPs will hear Alex Salmond give evidence in front of the committee, providing an opportunity for the man targeted by what he believes to be a political conspiracy to say his part.

Following a decision by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to publish his submission to the inquiry, Mr Salmond is now expected to give evidence on Wednesday February 24.

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His opponent, a former protege and the most popular SNP leader in history, who also leads the Scottish Government less than three months ahead of a critical election, will get her chance during the first week of March.

The former friends and allies, now turned against each other, will land their closing blows, all while the Scottish public sit back and watch their governing party tear itself apart from the inside.

Nicola Sturgeon has consistently said she “relishes” the possibility of righting some wrongs and tackling what she and her allies have always characterised as wild conspiracy theories.

But those theories, conspiracy or not, will get their air time.

The two titans of the independence movement in Scotland disagree on two critical issues that are key to the inquiry’s work, both concerning whether the First Minister breached the ministerial code in her interaction with Mr Salmond and his team and her handling of the judicial review.

At the heart of the dispute between the two parties is the belief, from the Salmond camp, that Ms Sturgeon should have intervened in the complaints process against Mr Salmond or at the very least, in the judicial review.

They also claim that she ultimately misled parliament on when she first learned of the nature of the complaints against the former first minister.

Mr Salmond claims Ms Sturgeon knew of the complaints against him as early as March 29, 2018, following a meeting between his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein and the first minister in Holyrood.

Ms Sturgeon has always claimed and initially told Holyrood that she first knew of the complaints on April 2, 2018, when she was informed of them by Mr Salmond during another meeting at her home.

She claims that the meeting with Mr Aberdein, described as “fleeting”, was forgotten due to her busy schedule. Mr Salmond claims it was pre-arranged by a member of Ms Sturgeon’s team.

Mr Salmond has labelled this assertion “untenable”.

Ms Sturgeon also, according to the former leader of the SNP, initially offered to intervene with the complaints process, something she denies, before changing her mind.

Mr Salmond also believes that in any case the First Minister should have intervened in the judicial review process in order to ensure the government acts lawfully, a condition set within the ministerial code.

Not doing so, and misleading the parliament on when she first knew of the complaints, is evidence Ms Sturgeon breached the ministerial code, Mr Salmond believes.

According to the ministerial code, ministers who are found to have breached it should offer their resignation.

In any case, within a fortnight, the Salmond Inquiry will have all but completed its work with just their final report and recommendations to come and the drama and unmitigated political disaster for both the SNP and Scotland’s institutions that has been the harassment complaints committee will finally come to a close, but the ramifications of such a tumultuous period for the SNP will linger for much longer.

At stake is not only the future of Ms Sturgeon’s career as a frontline politician, but the future of the dominant SNP and of the independence movement is firmly in jeopardy.

The splits within the SNP are well-documented. Mr Salmond has a handful of high-profile supporters within the party who believe he was unjustly targeted and argue Ms Sturgeon's leadership of the SNP and cautious approach to independence is symptomatic of a failed leader.

Those within Ms Sturgeon’s camp will highlight her soaring approval ratings, the first sustained lead in the polls for Yes, and the SNP on the verge of its second parliamentary majority.

The loss of Ms Sturgeon – should she resign – could see a reset within the SNP back to the days of 2007 and the first nationalist government.

Some may argue such a reset would be healthy for the party, but opposition politicians are chomping at the bit at the prospect of taking on a leaderless, rudderless, SNP consumed by bitterness.

If he is successful at bringing his protege crashing down to earth at her apogee, Mr Salmond may well spark the beginning of the end for the independence movement and his party.

The inquiry’s report could – together with James Hamilton QC’s concurrent investigation into whether Ms Sturgeon breached the ministerial code – spell the end of Ms Sturgeon and many of her civil servants’ careers, a result many in opposition are desperate to see.

It will also be excoriating of the layers of secrecy and obstruction that permeates Scotland's institutions and its dominant party.

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