Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she “would never have wanted to ‘get’ Alex Salmond” and denied claims she broke the ministerial code by lying to parliament.
Giving evidence to a Holyrood committee into the Government’s unlawful investigation of the former first minister, Ms Sturgeon condemned the “absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond”.
Ms Sturgeon’s predecessor alleges there was a “malicious and concerted” plot against him.
But speaking under oath during almost seven hours of questioning, Ms Sturgeon argued there was “not a shred of evidence” to support Mr Salmond’s claims and she had “no motive, intention, (or) desire” to conspire against him.
During her long-awaited appearance before the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Ms Sturgeon said the details of complaints against Mr Salmond were “shocking” and his behaviour “was not always appropriate” despite him being acquitted of all criminal charges in court.
She said Mr Salmond’s account to her of his “deeply inappropriate behaviour” is a “moment in my life that I will never forget”, as she maintained she did not intervene in the Scottish Government’s investigation into her predecessor as First Minister.
Ms Sturgeon apologised to the women who complained about Mr Salmond, saying they had been let down because of a “very serious mistake” in the Government’s investigation.
“Two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost, I deeply regret that,” she said.
The investigation was triggered after the women made allegations about Mr Salmond, who successfully challenged the lawfulness of the process.
The Scottish Government conceded the judicial review in January 2019 – a week before it was due to be heard in court.
Lord Pentland concluded the investigation was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, resulting in a £512,250 legal fee payout.
Ms Sturgeon said it was “absolutely right” the Scottish Government investigated the complaints, saying an “individual’s profile, status or connections should not result in complaints of this nature being ignored or swept under the carpet”.
She also insisted the Government had not prolonged its defence of the investigation, despite legal advice revealing counsel had expressed significant concerns as early as October.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The charge that has been made against me is that I wilfully allowed a judicial review to proceed against the legal advice, therefore I broke the ministerial code.
“With respect, as you now know, I was acting in accordance with the views of the law officers, not against.
“We thought we had a stateable case, counsel was not arguing at that stage – that changed later – we thought we had credible arguments to make, and we were also taking account of that wider interest in getting a determination on the many grounds of challenge that Alex Salmond had made to both the procedure and its application.”
The Scottish Conservatives said they have lodged votes of no confidence in Ms Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney, though there is no timescale for these to be debated.
Labour’s Jackie Ballie questioned Ms Sturgeon over “missing” documents from the Scottish Government’s legal advice that was eventually released to the committee at the “11th hour”, with convener Linda Fabiani saying the committee shared Ms Baillie’s “frustration” on this.
Ms Sturgeon stressed she had always acted “properly and appropriately” and there was “no intention” by the Scottish Government to withhold information from the committee.
Addressing Mr Salmond’s committee evidence last Friday, Ms Sturgeon said: “That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question. But I know, just from what he told me, that his behaviour was not always appropriate.
“And yet across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or a simple acknowledgment of that. I can only hope in private the reality might be different.”
Asked whether she thought she owed the Scottish people an apology for having previously told them to trust Mr Salmond, an emotional Ms Sturgeon said: “I trusted him and I am not going to apologise for the behaviour of somebody else.
“I do not think it’s reasonable to ask me to apologise for the behaviour of Alex Salmond.
“I think the only person who should apologise for behaviour on his part – which he was asked to do on Friday and failed to do – is Alex Salmond.”
She originally told parliament she first became aware of the Scottish Government investigation into Mr Salmond on April 2 2018, before later admitting to a March 29 meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein when “a harassment-type issue had arisen”.
She told the committee she wishes 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”.
With questions over why the meeting with Mr Salmond was not recorded as official government business, Ms Sturgeon maintained she had believed it to be a party matter beforehand and then did not want it to become public and risk “breaching the confidentiality of the process”.
She added she had no intention of intervening in the investigation process and did not intervene, saying to do so would have been an abuse of her role.
The First Minister was also questioned about a claim that a senior member of her team leaking a complainer’s name to Mr Aberdein, who passed it to Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I am not accepting that that happened, therefore I am clearly not accepting that was authorised.”
She said her assumption was Mr Salmond had already apologised to one of the women and may have worked out another’s identity “through his own investigations”.
Challenged about details of the investigation being leaked to the Daily Record newspaper in 2018 – the first public confirmation of allegations against Mr Salmond – Ms Sturgeon said it “didn’t come from me, or anyone acting on my instruction or request”.
During the committee meeting, Mr Salmond lodged a formal complaint with the head of Scotland’s civil service “on the conduct of the official who is alleged to have breached civil service rules, by disclosing the name of a complainant in the Scottish Government process”.