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KIRSTY STRICKLAND: Nicola Sturgeon gave an assured performance, but there were some dicey moments

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, at Holyrood.

In a story that has been characterised by bombast and spin there is an inherent risk in making bold predictions about what will happen next, or definitive statements about what has come before.

Yet it is not an exaggeration to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s job was on the line as she prepared to appear in front of the committee investigating her government’s mishandling of complaints against Alex Salmond.

Kirsty Strickland.

Events on the eve of her evidence session led to suggestions that she could be forced to resign before the Holyrood election.

Legal advice published under threat of a vote of no confidence in John Swinney showed that the Scottish government continued its legal fight with Mr Salmond despite being advised by its lawyers that it was likely to lose.

In the wake of that advice being revealed, the Scottish Conservatives announced they would be pursing a Vote of No Confidence in the first minster.

While Alex Salmond had little to lose from his appearance before the committee the opposite was true of Nicola Sturgeon.

I know, just from what he told me, that his behaviour was not always appropriate.”

Nicola Sturgeon

The first section of her opening statement was as expected. In granular detail she set out her account of the events that led up to her government’s botched investigation into complaints against Alex Salmond. Keen to get ahead of questions, she adopted a defensive position and gave a summary of some of the contested points of evidence.

It was methodical, if dry, and the first minister denied that she had broken the ministerial code or was part of a ‘’plot’’ against her predecessor.

The most striking moment came when she spoke of her disappointment in Alex Salmond’s conduct while first minister.

“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 or regret, reflection or even acknowledgement of that.’’

“I refused to follow the age-old pattern of letting a powerful man use his status and connections to get what he wants.’’

Later, deputy convener Margaret Mitchell reminded her: ‘’Alex Salmond isn’t on trial here – you are’’.

Nicola Sturgeon with Alex Salmond when she was confirmed as the party’s new leader in 2014.

Uncomfortable questions for the First Minister

It was a point that Murdo Fraser didn’t need reminding of. During a particularly grim line of questioning he asked the first minister if she would apologise for asking the people of Scotland to trust Alex Salmond.

If asking a woman to apologise for the actions of a man accused of sexual misconduct left a bad taste in his mouth Mr Fraser certainly hid it well.

In what was for the most part an assured performance, there were some dicey moments for the First Minister under questioning from Labour’s Jackie Baillie. Most notably on why it took so long for the prior contact the investigating officer had with complainers to be disclosed, as well as the claim that a government official had revealed a name of a complainer to a former member of Alex Salmond’s staff.

On the latter point, Sturgeon suggested that Alex Salmond already knew the name of one of the women because he recalled the incident in question and had apologised to the woman.

She looked uncomfortable when Jackie Baillie referred to an answer she gave during FMQs when she said she had no knowledge of the alleged disclosure and struggled when asked to clarify, leading to Ms Baillie pointedly remarking that the question was “quite simple.’’

If asking a woman to apologise for the actions of a man accused of sexual misconduct left a bad taste in his mouth Mr Fraser certainly hid it well.”

Kirsty Strickland

Now we have finally heard from Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond it is evident that this situation is anything but simple.

Mr Salmond may have overplayed his hand in allowing his allies to push the claim that this whole saga was borne of a grand conspiracy by a disparate group of organisations and former friends to fit him up.

We have seen rampant incompetence and obfuscation on the part of the Scottish
Government but no evidence of a coordinated plot.

In their respective committee appearances, the current first minister and her predecessor showed why they once made such a formidable team.

That is one of the reasons why anybody who already had a strong viewpoint before their evidence sessions probably won’t have changed their mind after hearing it.

Kirsty Strickland is a freelance columnist.

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