Scotland politics

Sturgeon spokesman accuses Salmond team of 'smears'

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon has told MSPs she has not spoken to Mr Salmond since July 2018. Here they are pictured at the 2013 SNP conference in Perth

The row over the Scottish government's investigation of Alex Salmond has deepened, with claims his team tried to "smear" Nicola Sturgeon.

The first minister has come under pressure after the government admitted that the way it handled two complaints against Mr Salmond was unlawful.

Ms Sturgeon has asked a panel to review whether she broke the ministerial code.

The two sides have now traded claims about when Ms Sturgeon's officials learned about the complaints.

Mr Salmond's aides have described the collapsed investigation as an "institutional fiasco", while Ms Sturgeon's spokesman accused them of "an attempt to smear the first minister".

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

Mr Salmond denied the accusations, and after they became public he quit the SNP and 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 court 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 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 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".

He said: "Suggestions by Mr Salmond's 'insiders' that the first minister knew about the investigation before 2 April are not true. The suggestion put to Ms Sturgeon's chief of staff by the Times, that she knew of complaints when she met an intermediary for Mr Salmond on 6 March, is also not true.

"At the heart of this matter remains the fact that complaints were made that could not be swept under the carpet - and the first minister and Scottish government will not say or do anything which might risk prejudicing the police investigation."

A spokesman for Mr Salmond said "it is the case" that Ms Lloyd knew about the complaints about Mr Salmond before the April meeting, and said that "she initiated first contact through an intermediary".

He added: "Alex has no certainty as to the state of knowledge of the first minister before then."

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

The exchange of statements came hours after former health secretary Alex Neil, now a senior SNP backbencher at Holyrood, dismissed the idea that the row was dividing the party.

Mr Neil, who served as a minister under both leaders, said it was a "sad episode" for SNP.

While he conceded that the two "have had their differences", he insisted that there was "no civil war" within the party.

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."

'Big questions'

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 itself is "robust", and that the Salmond probe was let down by a "single procedural flaw" in how it was applied.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
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."

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".

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.

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 Ms Evans.

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

More on this story