The most explosive salvo yet in the Salmond versus Sturgeon battle for the SNP could not have come at a worse moment for Scotland.
Two weeks into a nationwide lockdown, with coronavirus infections spreading panic as well as overloading hospitals, all attention should be focused on fighting the pandemic and rolling out the vaccines.
The former first minister’s bombshell allegation that the current first minister repeatedly lied to parliament will surely be a distraction at so critical a juncture.
Such concerns for the nation’s wellbeing were uppermost in Salmond’s mind when he emerged from his courtroom acquittal last March. Back then, he warned that there were facts withheld from the trial that would “see the light of day”, but they would have to wait while Covid raged.
“Whatever nightmare I have been through over the last two years it is as nothing compared to the situation we are all going through,” he said, just as Scotland locked down for the first time.
Today, the nightmare may still be with us, but Salmond’s perspective has changed and the full force of his fury with his successor has been unleashed.
The timing is bad for the SNP, and terrible for the country, but Salmond perhaps feels he has nothing left to lose after watching Sturgeon gain momentum over the best part of a year.
He now accuses her of giving evidence to MSPs that was “false and manifestly untrue” regarding her handling of harassment complaints made against him.
In his submission to the Holyrood inquiry investigating the government’s role in the affair, Salmond challenges Sturgeon’s recollection of when they first met to discuss the claims.
If she is found to have broken conduct rules, her position will become precarious, as even the SNP Commons leader, Ian Blackford, accepted.
Salmond is due to appear before the parliament committee next week and Sturgeon a week later. There is also an ongoing and separate probe, by James Hamilton QC, into whether she breached the ministerial code.
‘He said/she said’ anticlimax
Titillating as this may be for unionists desperate to dent the Scottish nationalists’ surging popularity, it may come down to an inconclusive “he said/she said” anticlimax rather than a clear-cut resignation matter.
And then, any lasting damage will be measured in Sturgeon’s ratings as she heads towards the May elections (that is, if they go ahead).
If she survives her grilling by fellow parliamentarians, she is unlikely to lose the public support she already has. Pitted against Salmond, she comfortably occupies the moral high ground and this is how she probably intends to defend herself.
During his trial, Salmond claimed that his accusers – who included an SNP politician and Scottish Government civil servants and officials – were politically motivated.
This version of events, that there was a Sturgeon-led conspiracy, possibly driven by fears of his comeback, is plausible.
Sturgeon’s loftier approach
Her explanation – muddling and forgetting dates – has so far seemed implausible, as has that of her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
But she has since come up with something smarter. Following Salmond’s allegations about her integrity, she took a loftier approach, playing on people’s (and women’s especially) lingering squeamishness about him.
“We should always remember that the roots of this issue lie in complaints made by women about Alex Salmond’s behaviour whilst he was first minister, aspects of which he has conceded,” said Sturgeon’s spokesperson last week.
“It is not surprising, therefore, that he continues to try to divert focus from that by seeking to malign the reputation of the first minister and by spinning false conspiracy theories.’
Salmond may have his own tribal support, and his camp has made recent inroads into the party apparatus, but he is no longer a match for his one-time protégé.
In his wilderness years after losing the 2014 independence referendum he was a political wild card, touting his wares on a dodgy pro-Putin television channel while Sturgeon worked doggedly at winning every election going.
His own lawyer agreed he could have been “a better man on occasions”. Sturgeon, by comparison, is apparently beyond reproach, wearing her sainthood even less lightly in the time of Covid.
When she asks voters to choose between her, righteousness incarnated steering us through a global crisis, and the not-quite-rehabilitated Salmond, there is no contest.
Neither, despite their boasts, has Scotland’s best interests at heart or they would abandon all discussion of separation until the country has seen off its present troubles.
But that is an argument for opposition politicians to make and win. Among nationalists, the Salmond or Sturgeon choice boils down to perceived virtue.
The ‘What she did and when’ hardly counts if her aim was to preserve her leadership in the face of a potential power grab by her discredited predecessor. That is her story and she will be sticking to it.