Nicola Sturgeon “stands by every word of her evidence” to the Holyrood inquiry investigating the Scottish Government’s botched handling of sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond.
A spokesperson for the First Minister said the committee had “resorted to baseless assertion, supposition and smear” after a leak suggested members found it “hard to believe” she did not previously know about alleged inappropriate behaviour by Salmond.
STV News understands MSPs on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints Committee voted 5-4 that the First Minister gave an “inaccurate” account of a meeting with her predecessor during the live investigation.
The spokesperson said: “The First Minister told the truth to the committee, and stands by every word of her evidence.
“Day and daily the public have seen the open, frank approach the First Minister has taken to political leadership.
“The contrast with elements of the opposition, who appear intent on breaking every rule in the book in a blatantly transparent attempt to damage her before the coming election, could not be more stark.”
Speaking at the daily coronavirus briefing, health secretary Jeane Freeman said she did not believe the First Minister should resign, amid calls by the Scottish Conservatives that she should do so.
Freeman said: “I do not believe she has misled parliament and I have absolute confidence in her veracity of what she said in those eight hours of evidence to that committee, in her integrity and in her professionalism.
“And I am not going to comment on unattributed briefings about a report which has not yet been published.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the First Minister has been “untruthful” and called on her to step down.
The party said if she doesn’t resign by Tuesday it will force a vote of no confidence at parliament on Wednesday.
He told STV News: “We’ll read the full committee report and their findings when it’s published in the next few days but the Scottish Conservatives have been clear for weeks that the evidence submitted to the inquiry confirmed that Nicola Sturgeon had been untruthful, she had misled parliament and, therefore, she has to resign.
“That’s what we’ve been saying for weeks because the evidence has been clear.
“I don’t believe the word ‘knowingly’ makes a big difference because Nicola Sturgeon has misled parliament, she has not been truthful with the people of Scotland and we expect the highest standards of the holder of the highest office in the land.
“The First Minister must have the trust of the people of Scotland and if she has misled, if she has not been truthful to the people of Scotland, she cannot continue in that office.”
The Scottish Conservatives intend to push forward a vote of no confidence in the First Minister next week.
The inquiry is understood to have concluded it is “hard to believe” Sturgeon did not know of concerns about her predecessor’s behaviour before November 2017, as she claimed.
Sturgeon has claimed she was informed about a media inquiry relating to Salmond’s alleged behaviour towards female Edinburgh Airport staff in November 2017 and that was the first she had ever heard of his potential inappropriate behaviour.
The committee also believes Sturgeon should have acted upon any information about her predecessor’s conduct and is “concerned” about the meetings Sturgeon had with Salmond after he revealed he was being investigated, and why it took the First Minister more than two months to tell the head of Scotland’s civil service what she knew.
The First Minister’s spokesperson said: “The suggestion that the First Minister was not clear to Mr Salmond that she would not intervene on his behalf, the committee appear to have deliberately ignored and suppressed evidence submitted to them which corroborates the First Minister’s evidence on that issue.
“And that, in fact, she did not intervene on behalf of a then friend and colleague to help cover up sexual harassment allegations, appears irrelevant to them.
“It was clear from the actions of the Tories several weeks ago, when they announced plans for a motion of confidence before they had even heard a word of evidence from the First Minister, that for them this committee was never a serious exercise in learning lessons on behalf of women who bring forward complaints of sexual harassment – it was only ever about politics.
“The independent inquiry into the First Minister and the ministerial code is being conducted by James Hamilton, and we expect to receive and publish his report soon.”
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.
The SNP leader has also faced questions about when she became aware of the internal government investigation of her predecessor, having originally told parliament it was at a meeting with him at her home on April 2.
It later emerged that Salmond’s former chief of staff had spoken to Sturgeon about – in her words – “a harassment-type issue” four days earlier when arranging the subsequent meeting.
She told the committee she wished her memory of the earlier meeting was “more vivid”, but “it was the detail of the complaints under the procedure that I was given on April 2 that was significant and indeed shocking”.
Sturgeon also defended her decision not to record the meeting, as per the ministerial code, because she initially suspected it was about party business and then wanted to protect the “confidentiality of the process”.
Salmond’s claim there was “no doubt” their meeting was about the government investigation was corroborated by Duncan Hamilton QC – a former SNP MSP – and the SNP’s former communications director, Kevin Pringle.
This latest development comes after Conservative MP David Davis used parliamentary privilege in the House of Commons to read out messages that he suggested showed a “concerted effort by senior members of the SNP to encourage complaints” against the former first minister.
According to Davis, the messages disclosed by a whistleblower “demands serious investigation”, with one alleging the investigating officer in the case complained of interference by Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff.
The message is alleged to have been sent by Judith Mackinnon to the government’s communications director on February 6, 2018, almost two months before the First Minister claims to have first known about the investigation of her predecessor.