SNP chiefs have been forced to reject claims of a growing “civil war” in the party over sexual harassment claims surrounding Alex Salmond and his decision to launch a “crowdfunder” to finance his legal battle.
The appeal for cash had last night already raised more than £85,000, but prompted warnings from senior party figures, including Westminster leader Ian Blackford, that it must not stop women coming forward to report future claims.
The crowdfunder was branded “astonishing” by political opponents, who say Mr Salmond is a wealthy man and should be able to fund his own legal team.
Mr Blackford yesterday sought to play down claims of a growing divide in the SNP between loyalty to Mr Salmond among many members and Parliamentarians against concerns the claims of the women may be drowned out.
Nicola Sturgeon even urged supporters to back a separate legal crowdfunder for Women’s Aid, which is seeking to overturn the so-called rape clause that she branded “anti-women”.
The First Minister will host an “away day” for party MPs and MSPs today ahead of the Scottish Parliament’s return next week, but the shadow of the sexual harassment claims hanging over her long-time mentor are expected to loom large.
The fallout of the shock claims against Mr Salmond is continuing to rock Scottish politics.
He announced on Wednesday night he had resigned from the SNP – the party he led for two decades – over allegations that he sexually harassed two women during his term as First Minister in December 2013. He has strenuously denied the claims.
Mr Salmond has insisted his legal costs will be “huge” as he takes the Scottish Government to the Court of Session over the process that was used to investigate the claims made against him.
He has claimed he was denied “natural justice” because his legal team were not allowed access to witnesses and he was prevented from calling witnesses in his defence or challenge the conclusions. Mr Blackford was asked yesterday what his message was to SNP MPs and MSPs supporting the crowdfunder.
He said: “What Alex has done in terms of the crowd funder is his responsibility.
“I hope that what we don’t do is conflate what is happening in this case as any kind of signal that should be taken as a negative one towards women coming forward and raising what are legitimate issues.”
Mr Blackford added: “I think what has to be paramount in this are the interests of those who have come forward. We need to make sure that people can come forward, fulsome in the knowledge that they will have anonymity, that they will be listened to and that action that needs to be taken will be taken.
“That’s the single most important factor out of all of this.”
Mr Blackford also said: “It’s up to individuals on a private basis what actions they’ve taken in relation to the crowdfunding. I’m not going to get into what individuals do, but I think you can interpret my remarks that I give absolute full support to the government… and I am absolutely fulsome in my support for the First Minister.
“This is a party, a movement, that is pretty united.
“I am not getting messages from people suggesting that there is civil war within the SNP, far from it.”
MSP Richard Lyle retweeted a claim on Friday that said: “The attacks on Yes Facebook pages, Independence supporting blogs and Alex Salmond are not unconnected – the British State is terrified Scotland ends the 1707 union.”
Western Isles MP Angus Macneil retweeted several contentious statements and has shared details of Mr Salmond’s crowdfunding effort to help pay his legal bills.
The Western Isles MP shared a tweet that said “I’m backing Alex Salmond” and suggested the British establishment was behind the accusation.
Thousands of messages of support have been left by those leaving cash, but political rivals lined up to lambast Mr Salmond for his crowdfunding plea.
Scottish Labour’s Rhoda Grant MSP said it was “unbelievable” the former First Minister would pursue such a move.
She said: “It suggests that he is sending a signal to those who have made allegations that he has the upper hand.
“Decent people will rightly be furious that he is to raise money to take the Scottish Government to court.
“Alex Salmond is abusing his power and dragging Scotland into the gutter.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “The fact he now has the brass neck to publicly crowdfund in the same breath as seemingly doing the right thing is astonishing.
“Scotland now faces the incredible and unprecedented situation of its most famous former First Minister appealing to SNP supporters for cash to take legal action against the government he used to run.”
Pressure is mounting on Ms Sturgeon, with calls for her to clamp down on the conspiracy theories about Mr Salmond.
The SNP leader, who succeeded Mr Salmond as First Minister in 2014, again sought to highlight the serious nature of the allegations made against Mr Salmond.
She said women must feel confident about coming forward in such circumstances regardless of “how senior, how powerful, how well known or what the political allegiance is”.
Ms Sturgeon added: “Whatever any of us do and say in the context of this very high profile case, we must absolutely make sure we don’t make it harder for or discourage women from coming forward in the future.
“I think that is an obligation on all of us right now.”
Ms Sturgeon admitted yesterday she had found the situation “incredibly difficult” over the past week.
But she insisted women had to be confident their complaints would be “treated seriously and fairly – and by fairly I mean fairly to all parties concerned”.
Mr Salmond has insisted he intends to reapply for SNP membership as soon as his name is cleared, but it emerged yesterday that he may have to wait two years to do so. This would block a political return as an SNP candidate if an election is called during this period.
Two complaints, strenuously denied by Mr Salmond, were raised in January against him and he was informed of an investigation in March.