Stern Nicola Sturgeon keeps me in check - Alex Salmond

THEY have operated as an inseparable political double act for the best part of 20 years.

Now First Minister Alex Salmond has admitted that he looks to his deputy Nicola Sturgeon to keep him in check during political debates - and praised her as a role model for Scottish women considering a career in politics.

Speaking on Radio 4's Women's Hour, Mr Salmond lauded Ms Sturgeon's abilities as an inspiration to women, and revealed the closeness of their relationship when he admitted that the deputy first minister had at times given him "some pretty stern advice".

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"I believe the performance and ability of Nicola Sturgeon probably does more to encourage women to participate in politics than anything I can say or legislation you could provide," he told presenter Jenni Murray.

"I wouldn't disagree that she has given me some pretty stern advice occasionally and I think that lots of male politicians can forget that there's a lot more to politics and life than enjoying the cut and thrust of debate.

"Sometimes you have to look at the end objectives as well as the means and playing the game and Nicola is a very strong corrector sometimes of my love for the cut and thrust."

Ms Sturgeon last night praised Mr Salmond's relationship with female colleagues.

"The SNP has a long track record of strong women in the party, from Winnie Ewing onwards, and Alex has always been very supportive of the women in the SNP," she said.

Never missing an opportunity to tease the colleague she has known since she joined the party in the late 1980s, she added: "He's good at listening to our advice and I'm sure that sometimes he even follows it."

But David Torrance, author of a recent biography of Mr Salmond, said the First Minister's comments were part of a strategy to attract the female vote. During the election campaign, the party leader spoke emotionally about his mother on Desert Island Discs and tried to find common ground with members of the Mumsnet web forum when he spoke about his limited experience of changing nappies.

"Women's Hour is all part of a strategy to soften him round the edges, make him more of a human being and, hopefully, attract more women voters," Mr Torrance said.

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"Poll after poll since Alex Salmond returned as SNP leader in 2004 has shown that he's significantly less popular with women voters than with men. This probably has a lot to do with his aggressive demeanour, although of course he's tried to temper this - with occasional lapses - since becoming First Minister in 2007, but he and his strategists are obviously conscious that he still needs to do more to work the female vote."But Mr Torrance said he believed the strong bond between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, who last summer married SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, was beneficial to the leader's image.

"The Sturgeon-Salmond double act has been a very successful one," he said. "It works on a gender level - having one male, one female is a neat leadership balancing act - but also politically, because Nicola is less pugilistic than Alex."

The pair have worked as a close team since meeting as young politicians. In 2004, after Ms Sturgeon dropped out of the leadership election to allow Mr Salmond to return from Westminster, the duo launched a presidential style campaign ahead of the Holyrood elections in 2007.

"Nicola and I are standing as a team because we believe that, together, we can take the SNP and Scotland forward," Mr Salmond was quoted as saying at the time.


ALEX Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are not the only male-female double act to take the political world by storm - although they are perhaps unusual in that their relationship is purely professional.

In the US, the popularity of the first lady is arguably more important than that of the president himself.

Bill Clinton's wife, Hillary, was a key part of his success, especially after the Monica Lewinski scandal. Regarded as the most powerful first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs Clinton (pictured below with her husband) was the first to have an office in the West Wing of the White House, in addition to the usual first lady's offices in the East Wing.

Dennis Thatcher was described as a "vital element" in Margaret Thatcher's success by Iain Duncan Smith after Mr Thatcher died in 2003, while in Northern Ireland, husband and wife team Peter and Iris Robinson were long considered the most powerful political family in the province.