Scotland politics

Alex Neil denies claims of SNP 'civil war' over Salmond

Salmond and Sturgeon Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs she has not spoken to Mr Salmond since July 2018

A top SNP MSP has denied there is a "civil war" in the party amid a deepening row over the government's investigation of Alex Salmond.

Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure after the government conceded defeat in Mr Salmond's judicial review of how complaints against him were handled.

Ms Sturgeon is facing an inquiry over whether she broke the ministerial code.

Alex Neil told the BBC the two "have had their differences" but insisted that the SNP remains "totally united".

But Ms Sturgeon's spokesman later accused her predecessor's team of "an attempt to smear the first minister" via newspaper stories.

The row centres on an internal government investigation of two sexual harassment complaints against Mr Salmond, which were received by in January 2018.

Mr Salmond denied the accusations, and after they became public announced he was taking the government to court in a judicial review of how the probe had been handled.

After initially pledging to defend itself "vigorously", the government conceded defeat in the review after it emerged that the officer tasked with investigating the complaints had previously been in contact with the two women who made them.

The review did not pass any judgement on the merit of the complaints, and a separate police investigation into them continues.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Alex Neil was a government minister under both Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon

Ms Sturgeon has come under pressure after admitting that she spoke to Mr Salmond five times while the investigation was ongoing, including three face-to-face meetings.

On Sunday, she agreed to refer herself to independent advisers to judge whether she had breached the ministerial code by not reporting the first of these meetings back to officials.

Mr Salmond's team has claimed that Ms Sturgeon's chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, knew about the complaints against him in advance of the first meeting, at the first minister's Glasgow home on 2 April 2018.

Ms Sturgeon's spokesman insisted this was not true, and said that these claims appearing in newspapers "appears to be an attempt to smear the first minister".

'No civil war'

Mr Neil, who served as a government minister under both Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, said it was a "sad episode" for party.

But he insisted that "there is no civil war inside the SNP".

He told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme: "We have a highly respected former leader and highly respected leader, and clearly in relation to this matter they have had their differences, there's no doubt about that.

"We are certainly a totally united party - although this issue has to be resolved, one way or the other."

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Media captionAlex Salmond: "While I am glad about the victory that has been achieved today I am sad it was necessary to take this action."

Separately, Mr Neil called for a judge-led independent review into the Scottish government's investigation process around the allegations.

He said: "My view is that it should not be an internal civil service review, it should be a judge-led independent review, done in public.

"It would appear there are big questions over whether the process is fair."

Ms Sturgeon and her officials have insisted that the complaints handling process is "robust", and that the Salmond probe was let down by a "single procedural flaw" in how it was applied.

Parliamentary inquiry

Opposition parties have called for an inquiry to be conducted at Holyrood, with the Scottish Conservatives calling Ms Sturgeon's handling of the matter "absolutely abysmal".

Interim leader Jackson Carlaw said it was time for Ms Sturgeon to "front up" and "agree to an inquiry by parliament so MSPs can find out what has gone on".

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard also called for a "full, public parliamentary inquiry", saying he would work with other parties in the coming week to secure one.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Scottish government chief of staff Liz Lloyd, pictured here with Ms Sturgeon in 2015, was present when the first minister met Alex Salmond in April 2018

Ms Sturgeon agreed to refer herself to the independent advisers who oversee the ministerial code after Mr Leonard wrote to her demanding a probe.

Labour has claimed Ms Sturgeon breached the code by not reporting her first meeting with Mr Salmond, when he told her that he was under investigation, back to government officials.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that she flagged up her knowledge of the complaints to her top civil servant - permanent secretary Leslie Evans - after Mr Salmond requested a second meeting in June 2018.

The independent advisers - Dame Elish Angiolini QC, and James Hamilton, a former director of public prosecutions in Ireland - will decide on the remit of their investigation, and whether Ms Sturgeon broke the ministerial code.

This is the first time she has faced such an investigation, although Mr Salmond was cleared of breaching the code on six separate occasions when he was in office.

In a statement on Monday, a spokesman for Mr Salmond said the "controversy about these meetings" was of "secondary importance".

He said the "substantive issue" was the collapse of the government investigation, an "institutional fiasco" for which Mr Salmond blames Scotland's top civil servant Leslie Evans.

The first minister has said she has "full confidence" in Ms Evans, and has rebuffed calls for her to quit.

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