Nicola Sturgeon has faced questions about WhatsApp messages allegedly from her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, in which he seemed to suggest putting pressure on police over the Alex Salmond case.
At First Minister’s Questions, Ruth Davidson challenged her over the issue after the messages purportedly from Mr Murrell to an unknown person were leaked.
The First Minister refused to say if the messages were from her husband due to the ongoing police probe into how the communications were obtained.
Sent at the start of the year, around the time criminal proceedings were beginning against Salmond, one message appears to suggest it would be a “good time to pressurise” police about the case.
Another suggests London’s Metropolitan Police should open a second investigation into the former first minister.
Mr Murrell’s message reportedly read: “The more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers.”
Davidson, who is the stand-in at Holyrood for Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, attacked Sturgeon over the Holyrood inquiry into her government’s botched handling of harassment complaints made against Salmond in 2018.
She asked why the FM had chosen to “break her word” to parliament that her government would cooperate fully and be as transparent as possible with the inquiry.
Davidson accused the Scottish Government of a “shabby abuse of power” due to key documents being withheld or heavily redacted.
Sturgeon hit back that any files that had not been provided were due to legal restrictions and said the government had supplied the special committee of MSPs with “a thousand or more pages of material”.
She denied her administration is “obstructing” the inquiry – a claim made earlier this week by the committee’s convener and SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who said the inquiry “simply cannot proceed” at present due to a lack of evidence.
In a letter to the Court of Session, Fabiani appealed directly to access the “essential” evidence currently caught up in legal wrangling.
The First Minister was pressed by Davidson on the WhatsApp messages apparently sent by her husband in fiery exchanges on Thursday.
The Scottish Tory MSP asked: “Are these messages genuine or not?”
Sturgeon refused to say, arguing: “The obtaining of these messages is currently a matter, as I understand it, of a police investigation.”
She added: “I do not think it is reasonable for me to be asked questions about things that other people might or might not have done.
“Call the people who the messages are purported to come from and ask them the questions.”
The messages were revealed in the Daily Record by East Lothian MP and Salmond ally Kenny MacAskill, who says he was leaked them anonymously.
Davidson insisted the police probe concerns how the messages were provided to MacAskill and “does not preclude” the First Minister admitting whether they are genuine or not.
Thursday’s row at FMQs also comes after Conservative MSP Oliver Mundell was rejected from the Holyrood chamber for accusing the First Minister of “lying” to parliament.
Regarding the committee’s work, on January 17 Sturgeon told MSPs: “The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request.”
Mundell refused to apologise for branding the FM a liar in the chamber, which is deemed unparliamentary language, saying it was the “most appropriate” term to use.
On this issue, Davidson asked the First Minister what had made her “break her word” to MSPs.
Sturgeon said she took the inquiry “very seriously”, adding that the Conservative accusations were “not an accurate characterisation of the position”.
The First Minister said “a thousand or more pages of material” and “ten hours of oral evidence” have already been provided by Scottish Government officials to the special cross-party committee.
She added she was herself ready to give oral evidence at any point but has not yet been asked.
The inquiry has decided not to invite any more oral witnesses until it has the evidence it says it needs.
The FM said she had already personally written a submission to the inquiry “months ago” but it has not yet been published.
She went on: “As I understand it the only material that hasn’t been provided is material where there are legal reasons why it cannot be provided, including the issue of legal privilege…
“The idea that the SNP or the Scottish government is trying to obstruct this committee bears no scrutiny whatsoever.”
But Davidson said the First Minister could furnish the committee with the evidence it wants “with the snap of her fingers” and condemned “the shabby abuse of power that this affair has revealed”.
The Tory group leader added: “We have the head of the civil service having to be recalled to the inquiry because she can’t remember or won’t answer key questions.
“A tranche of government emails related to the inquiry deleted, committee hearings having to be suspended because they can’t continue due to obstruction, and the committee chairwoman having to write to the courts to get information that the First Minister promised 18 months ago that she would undertake to provide.”
Sturgeon said that as the inquiry dealt with her own conduct, she had recused herself from any role in deciding which government materials are provided and how they are presented.
The FM continued: “I stand ready any time – today, next week, the week after that – to turn up at this committee and give evidence to it orally.
“I have not had an invitation to do that yet.
“The committee can convene this afternoon and I will answer questions for my conduct before that committee.
“The committee has now for two months been in possession of substantial written evidence from me personally.
“That has not been published and that is entirely the committee’s decision.
“But it is a bit galling for me to hear, often members of the committee from the Conservative benches, somehow saying I am not answering questions.”
The special committee was set up in early 2019 after the Court of Session ruled the way the Scottish Government dealt with harassment complaints against Salmond had been “unlawful”, “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias”.
The Scottish Government was forced to pay the former first minister more than £512,000 in damages.
The harassment claims were made in 2018 – shortly after the Scottish Government changed its complaints procedure – but dated back to Salmond’s time in Bute House in 2013.
While not directly related, it went on to trigger Police Scotland’s separate investigation into the former First Minister, and ultimately, a criminal trial.
Salmond was cleared of 13 charges of sexual offences by a jury in the High Court in March.