Nicola Sturgeon is facing fresh demands for answers today after a former Cabinet minister revealed bombshell messages suggesting her chief of staff was ‘interfering’ in the complaints process about the Alex Salmond case.
Pressure is mounting on the under-fire First Minister for an explanation after Tory backbencher David Davis used Parliamentary privilege to reveal messages indicating senior aide Liz Lloyd knew about sexual harassment complaints in February 2018 – two months Ms Sturgeon says she was told about them.
Mr Davis also said a whistleblower passed him messages between senior SNP officials, including Ms Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, suggesting a ‘concerted effort’ to encourage complaints about Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon has rubbished Mr Salmond’s accusations of an orchestrated plot to bring him down as ‘absurd’, and insists that she did not break the ministerial code by misleading the Scottish Parliament over when she found out about the allegations against her predecessor.
The former First Minister was later awarded more than £500,000 over the Scottish Government’s botched handling of his case, and cleared of sexual harassment allegations in a trial.
The extraordinary row is threatening to derail Ms Sturgeon’s drive to split up the UK, with support for Scottish independence diving as the ruling SNP descends further into civil war. She is facing calls to resign if probes find she broke the rules for ministers.
But the separatists will continue with their push for another referendum by holding a Commons debate this afternoon on Scotland’s ‘constitutional future’.
Ms Sturgeon had told MSPs she first learnt of complaints on April 2, before subsequently admitting she ‘forgot’ a meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, on March 29.
However, in an astonishing intervention in the House of Commons last night, Mr Davis said he had it ‘on good authority’ there is an exchange of messages from February 6, 2018, between Judith Mackinnon, who carried out the investigation into the complaints about Mr Salmond, and senior government official Barbara Allison ‘suggesting that the First Minister’s chief of staff is interfering in the complaints process against Alex Salmond’.
He said the investigating officer said in one message that ‘this interference v bad’.
David Davis (pictured in the Commons) used parliamentary privilege to reveal messages which indicate Miss Sturgeon’s chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, knew about complaints in February 2018 – two months before the First Minister said she was told about them
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (right) and her chief of staff Liz Lloyd (left) are facing fresh questions over the Alex Salmond row
The key texts read by David Davis
THE KEY PLAYERS
- Liz Lloyd, the First Minister’s Chief of Staff
- Sue Ruddick, Chief Operating Officer of the SNP
- Peter Murrell, SNP Chief Executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband
- Iain McCann, SNP Compliance Officer
- Civil servants Judith McKinnon and Barbara Allison
THE KEY TEXTS
The text messages below have been taken directly from David Davis’ speech in Parliament:
The messages suggest that SNP chief executive Peter Murrell co-ordinated Sue Ruddick and Ian McCann in the handling of specific complainants.
On 28 September, a month after the police had started their investigation of the criminal case, McCann expressed great disappointment to Ruddick that someone who had promised to deliver five complainants to him by the end of that week had come up empty, or ‘overreached’, as he put it. One of the complainants said to Ruddick that she was ‘feeling pressurised by the whole thing rather than supported’.
The day following the Scottish Government’s collapse in a judicial review in January 2019, Ruddick expressed to McCann the hope that one of the complainants would be ‘sickened enough to get back in the game.’
Later that month, she confirmed to Murrell that the complainant was now ‘up for the fight’ and ‘keen to see him go to jail’. Ruddick herself, in one of her texts, expressed nervousness about ‘what happens when my name comes out as [redacted] fishing for others to come forward’.
Text messages reveal that at an SNP national executive committee meeting early in January 2019, Joanna Cherr raised concerns among staff at Westminster that SNP headquarters were engaged in ‘suborning’ of witnesses, while on August 28, 2018, a senior member of SNP staff in this building described in an email the SNP headquarters move against Salmond as a ‘witch-hunt’.
Shortly after charges were brought against Salmond, Peter Murrell sent messages saying that it was a ‘good time to be pressurising’ detectives working on the case, and that the more fronts Salmond was having to ‘firefight’ on, ‘the better for all complainers.’
There exists from February 6, 2018 an exchange of messages between civil servants Judith McKinnon and Barbara Allison suggesting that the First Minister’s chief of staff is interfering in the complaints process against Alex Salmond. The investigating officer complained, ‘Liz interference v. bad’.
Mr Davis said: ‘If true, this suggests the chief of staff had knowledge of the Salmond case in February, not in April, as she has claimed on oath.
‘The First Minister also tied herself in [to] that April date in both parliamentary and legal statements. She was of course aware earlier than that. The question is, just how aware and how much earlier?’
Mr Davis said he was passed papers from an anonymous whistleblower, including a download of text messages from Sue Ruddick, chief operating officer of the SNP, which is held by police.
He said the whistleblower told him the messages ‘point to collusion, perjury, up to criminal conspiracy’.
Mr Davis referred to one message from September 28, 2018, a month after police started their investigation, in which SNP compliance officer Ian McCann expressed disappointment to Ms Ruddick that someone who had ‘promised to deliver five complainants… by the end of that week had come up empty, or overreached as he put it’.
Referring to another message on the day after the Scottish Government’s judicial review case collapsed in January 2019, he said Ms Ruddick expressed to Mr McCann the hope one of the complainants ‘would be sickened enough to get back in the game again’.
He said Ms Ruddick was nervous about her name coming out as someone ‘fishing’ for people to come forward.
Mr Davis also referred to Mr Murrell’s messages saying it was a good time to be ‘pressurising’ police. He said Mr Murrell told the inquiry these messages ‘were ‘quite out of character’. That is no defence even were it true’.
The former Cabinet minister told the Commons: ‘No single sequence of texts is going to provide conclusive proof of what the whistleblower described as a “criminal conspiracy”, but it does show a very strong prima facie case, which demands further 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 relevant times.
‘Together, those form a litany of acts that repeatedly frustrated the Committee and denied the public full transparency and accountability.
‘They fit squarely into a pattern of evasiveness and abuse of process that the Scottish Government have woven from the start.
‘As I said in opening, the proper place for these matters to be determined is Holyrood. It would be eminently preferable for MSPs to be exposing any relevant evidence, but given the British Government’s failure in 1998 to give sufficient power to the Scottish Parliament, and given that the Scottish Parliament derives its authority from this House, certain evidence must now enter the public domain here.
‘The Holyrood inquiry has exposed some critical failings at the heart of the Scottish Government. They failed with the complaints process, they failed to heed legal advice, and they failed to honour commitments to ensure a transparent parliamentary review, but perhaps more worryingly the inquiry has revealed the limits of what the Scottish Parliament can expose.
‘There is a deficit of power, and with it comes a deficit of accountability.
A spokesman for the First Minister – who is due to give a coronavirus briefing at lunchtime today – said: ‘Every message involving SNP staff has been seen by the committee previously.
‘Their views have been widely reported as dismissive of them.’
During eight hours of testimony before MSPs earlier this month, Ms Sturgeon insisted that this event had eclipsed the meeting she had four days earlier with Mr Aberdein, causing her to forget it
Former Scottish National Party leader and former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond is sworn in before giving evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee at Holyrood on February 26
Allegations, discussions, denials and a ‘forgotten’ key meeting between Sturgeon and Salmond
November 2017: Allegations regarding Alex Salmond’s behaviour are raised with the SNP by Sky News.
Nicola Sturgeon said she spoke to him about this – and he ‘denied it’. No further action was taken.
February 6, 2018: An exchange of messages between civil servants Judith McKinnon and Barbara Allison suggests that Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd is interfering in the complaints process against Alex Salmond. The investigating officer complained, ‘Liz interference v. bad’.
March 29, 2018: Ms Sturgeon meets Geoff Aberdein – Mr Salmon’s chief of staff – in her Scottish parliament office where she has admitted they discussed the possibility of a meeting with Mr Salmond. Ms Sturgeon – after initially forgetting about this meeting – says there was ‘the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’.
April 2, 2018: Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond meet at the First Minister’s home. According to Ms Sturgeon, this is the first time she heard of the complaints made against him. Despite this, she has insisted that the matters discussed were party business. No minutes were taken at the meeting.
What she previously said: On January 8, 2019, Ms Sturgeon tells the Scottish Parliament she ‘first heard’ about sexual harassment allegations against Mr Salmond on April 2.
In 2018, Andrew Marr asked Ms Sturgeon: ‘Had you heard any stories about him before it broke in the press?’ She responded: ‘Obviously, absolutely not. Until, well I’ve said previously Alex Salmond informed me about these complaints in April, that was the first I had known.’
And what she later said : In 2020, giving written evidence to the Holyrood into her government’s handling of complaints against Mr Salmond, she said she ‘forgot’ about the March 29 meeting until ‘late January/early February’ 2019.
She wrote: ‘From what I recall, the discussion covered the fact that Alex Salmond wanted to see me urgently about a serious matter, and I think it did cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature.’
September 14, 2018: A judicial review is launched after complaints by Mr Salmond over the fairness with how the claims against him were handled.
January 8, 2019: The Scottish government conceded defeat in the judicial review a week before it was due to launch. Mr Salmond wins £500,000 in legal fees. The court ruled the probe into Mr Salmond had been unlawful and tainted by apparent bias.
January 2019: Ms Sturgeon tells MSPs that Mr Salmond first told her about a probe into him on April 2.
March 23, 2020: Alex Salmond is cleared of all sexual assault charges and his supporters demanded a full inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the scandal.
October 7, 2020: Ms Sturgeon claims she ‘forgot’ about March 29, 2018, meeting with Mr Aberdein.
January 24, 2021: Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Ms Sturgeon denies misleading the Scottish Parliament after ‘forgetting’ to tell MSPs about her meeting with Mr Salmond’s aide on March 29, 2018.
February 2021: The High Court in Edinburgh rules Mr Salmond’s evidence claiming his former chief of staff met with Ms Sturgeon on March 28, 2018, to discuss sexual assault allegations against the former first minister can be released.
On comments regarding the chief of staff, the spokesman added: ‘The comment read out by Mr Davis in relation to the chief of staff does not relate to Ms A or Ms B and, at that time, she was not aware that there was any connection to the former First Minister.’
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said last night: ‘February 2018 is also two months before Nicola Sturgeon originally claimed to find out about complaints. If her chief of staff knew then, and was interfering in the investigation, it blows another enormous hole in the First Minister’s story.
‘If civil servants said the First Minister’s chief of staff was interfering in the investigation in a ‘very bad’ way, then that is a sacking offence. It raises serious questions about how she tried to interfere, how she found out, who told her, when she knew, and who she went on to tell.’
Ms Sturgeon is currently awaiting the reports of two inquiries that could potentially torpedo her political career.
The first, a Holyrood Inquiry of MSPs, is looking into the Scottish Government’s botched handling of complaints against the former first minister in 2018.
A successful judicial review by Mr Salmond resulted in the investigation being ruled unlawful and ‘tainted by apparent bias’, with a £512,250 payout being awarded to him for legal fees.
Mr Salmond was also later acquitted of 13 charges following a criminal trial.
The second is an inquiry conducted by James Hamilton QC that will rule on whether Miss Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by misleading Parliament, failing to record meetings during the complaints procedure, and ignoring the advice of lawyers to drop the case against Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon had previously claimed she first learnt of sexual harassment complaints against Mr Salmond on April 2, 2018, when he told her about them in the dining room of her home.
During eight hours of testimony before MSPs earlier this month, she insisted that this event had eclipsed the meeting she had four days earlier with Mr Aberdein, causing her to forget it.
She said: ‘What happened in my house on April 2, in my dining room with a man that’s been all these things to me for thirty years, was so significant, that that was the thing that will live with me forever. Did that, in my mind, slightly obliterate what came before that? Possibly.’
Ms Sturgeon also said she believed Mr Aberdein had talked of harassment in ‘general terms’ and she only realised they related to Mr Salmond on April 2.
MSPs at the inquiry were sceptical of her version of events and said it would be ‘unlikely’ she forgot such a meeting.
If Ms Sturgeon is found to have breached the ministerial code by misleading Parliament, there would be enormous pressure on her to resign.
The First Minister has refusing to preempt speculation of her future and said her priority is dealing with Covid.
In his testimony, Mr Salmond – once a mentor and close friend of Ms Sturgeon – accused his successor and senior SNP figures of orchestrating a concerted plot to bring him down.
Ms Sturgeon has denied this and insisted she was never out to ‘get’ Mr Salmond.
She told MSPs at the inquiry: ‘I feel I may rebut the absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond. That claim is not based in any fact.’
‘Alex Salmond was one of the the closest people to me in my life – I would never have wanted to get Alex Salmond. I had no motive intention or desire to get Alex.’
The row at the heart of the SNP has reached a crescendo with just months to go before crucial Holyrood elections.
Ms Sturgeon is on course to win a majority – albeit by just one seat, according to recent polls – and will likely use the mandate to demand another independence referendum.