Sturgeon rejects ‘latest instalment of Salmond conspiracy’

Ex-Tory minister says messages show 'concerted effort by senior members of the SNP to encourage complaints' against Salmond.

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Nicola Sturgeon has refuted claims made by former Conservative minister David Davis about a “conspiracy” against Alex Salmond.

Davis used parliamentary privilege to disclose messages in the House of Commons that he claimed proved a “concerted effort by senior members of the SNP to encourage complaints” against Salmond.

An investigation is ongoing into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against the former first minister.

Davis said a whistleblower had provided downloads of text messages from the telephone of a senior SNP official.

He said: “Now Alex Salmond has asserted that there has been, and I quote ‘a malicious and concerted attempt to remove me from public life in Scotland by a range of individuals within the Scottish government and the SNP’ who set out to damage his reputation, even to the extent of having him imprisoned.

“These are incredibly grave charges, the whistleblower clearly agrees with those charges.

“He or she starts their communication with the assertion that the evidence provided, and I quote, ‘point to collusion, perjury, up to criminal conspiracy’.”

At her coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the First Minister said she refuted “suggestions and insinuations” made by Davis, which she described as the “latest instalment of Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theory”.

She said: “I have given eight hours of evidence to the parliamentary committee looking into this.

“They are now able to assess all of the evidence they’ve taken, including, I’m sure, the evidence they have in relation to the suggestions and claims made by David Davis last night.

“They have a job of work to do, now, I’m going to allow them to do that job of work and, in the meantime I’m going to get on with my job.”

The Scottish Conservatives said her response proved the SNP were in “meltdown over the Alex Salmond scandal”.

Party leader Douglas Ross said: “A rattled Nicola Sturgeon dodged questions and tried to dictate what journalists can and can’t ask.”

Meanwhile, Deputy First Minister John Swinney insisted Sturgeon “gave an open and candid account” to MSPs investigating the handling of harassment complaints.

Swinney said nobody could “be in any doubt about the clarity of the information” that Sturgeon set out to the Holyrood committee.

Davis told MPs the messages he’d seen presented a case “which demands serious investigation, by which I mean at the very least a thorough review of all the emails and other electronic records for the relevant personnel at all the relevant times”.

He added: “For example, these texts show that there is a concerted effort by senior members of the SNP to encourage complaints.”

Davis went on to refer to what the messages suggested.

A spokesman for Sturgeon said: “As with Mr Salmond’s previous claims and cherry-picking of messages, the reality is very different to the picture being presented.

“Every message involving SNP staff has been seen by the committee previously. Their views have been widely reported as dismissive of them.”

Swinney told BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday morning that the First Minister gave “comprehensive answers to every question that was put to her (during her appearance at the Holyrood inquiry) and she stands by all of that information”.

He said: “I think in relation to some of the material that David Davis was recounting last night, as I understand it from media reports these messages have been considered by the harassment committee and from media comments they’ve been widely reported as being dismissive, as essentially irrelevant to the inquiry that’s being undertaken.

“We’ve set up the process of inquiry – I think we should let it takes its course and come to the conclusions that we need to. As I said we will do, in connection with the reports that arise out of these events.

“I’m all for the Scottish Parliament having a very wide range of powers, so I want parliament to be able to challenge the government; the government is never afraid of scrutiny and it is right that governments should be held to account.

“I think what’s important and what I think has been very clear from the public reaction to the First Minister’s evidence session at the harassment committee, that the First Minister gave an open and candid account of all the involvement that she’s had in her recollections of this process.

“Obviously we await the outcome of different enquiries that are looking at these issues.”

The Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints was set up after a successful judicial review by Salmond resulted in the Scottish Government’s investigation being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, with a £512,250 payout being awarded to him for legal fees in 2019.

As well as the committee’s inquiry, James Hamilton QC is investigating whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code.

On Tuesday, a report by Laura Dunlop QC called for complaints against current and former Government ministers to be investigated independently, rather than by the Scottish Government.

Meanwhile, Salmond’s claim that Sturgeon’s staff leaked the name of one of the women who complained about the former first minister’s behaviour has been corroborated by an ex-civil servant.

Lorraine Kay told the Holyrood inquiry that a complainer’s identity had been shared with Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s chief of staff.

Ms Kay, who worked in the then-first minister’s private office for five years, is the third person to back up Salmond’s statement that a government official revealed the name of one of the women who had come forward with an allegation.

Written evidence from Duncan Hamilton, a former SNP MSP and lawyer for Salmond, and the SNP’s former communications director, Kevin Pringle, both confirmed Mr Aberdein told them a complainer’s name was shared with him.

In a letter to the committee examining the government’s unlawful investigation of Salmond, but redacted by the Scottish Parliament, Ms Kay wrote: “I can confirm that Geoff confided in me, back in early March 2018, at the time when [redacted] requested a meeting with him.

“I met with Geoff after his meeting with [redacted], and was shocked to hear that the Scottish Government had received two complaints about Mr Salmond.

“Geoff also shared with me that [redacted] had named one of the complainants – I recall this clearly as I knew the individual concerned.

“I believe I was the first person Geoff spoke to about this issue.”

The current First Minister, who was not at the meeting where the name was allegedly shared, has argued that the name was not leaked.

When she was first challenged about the claims at FMQs, Sturgeon said: “To the very best of my knowledge, I do not think that happened.”

Speaking under oath during her evidence session before the committee, she said: “The account that I have been given has given me assurance that what is alleged to have happened at that meeting did not happen in the way that has been described.”

She suggested that Salmond may have already known the name of one of the complainers “because he had apologised to the person concerned” and had possibly discovered the identity of the other “through his own investigations”.

Following the publication of Ms Kay’s letter, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The First Minister has made the position on this clear in her evidence to the committee and looks forward to the findings of the report from the independent adviser on the ministerial code.”