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John Swinney was told to ‘be ready’ as Nicola Sturgeon feared she would have to quit

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

John Swinney was told to “be ready” to replace Nicola Sturgeon while the first minister awaited the verdict of the Alex Salmond inquiries, it has emerged.

The deputy first minister, who is the Perthshire North MSP and led the SNP between 2000 and 2004, was considered by Ms Sturgeon to be the most suitable candidate to succeed her if she had to resign just a few weeks before the election.

The contingency plans have been revealed in a new book, “Break-Up: How Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon Went To War”, by David Clegg and Kieran Andrews, with extracts appearing in The Sunday Times.

The newspaper reported that, as Ms Sturgeon awaited the verdict of an independent inquiry into her conduct by the QC James Hamilton in March, a number of senior SNP figures discussed putting their names forward to succeed her if she had to resign.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney outside Bute House, Edinburgh.

Cabinet secretaries Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf, along with Westminster leader Ian Blackford, were also said to be in the frame.

Ms Sturgeon signalled at the time that she would not have remained in post if the Hamilton inquiry found that she had breached the standards expected of ministers over her knowledge of a Scottish Government investigation into Mr Salmond’s conduct.

Alex Salmond inquiries

At the same time as the Hamilton investigation, a committee of MSPs was investigating the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment allegations against Mr Salmond.

It was established after the former SNP leader received a £512,000 pay-out following the Court of Session civil ruling that the Scottish Government process had been “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias”.

Mr Salmond, who had rejected allegations of wrongdoing, was cleared of 13 charges, including sexual assault, indecent assault and attempted rape, following a trial last year.

Alex Salmond

The new book reveals that Ms Sturgeon, Mr Swinney and some of their closest aides stayed up after midnight on the day the Hamilton report was being published to find out its conclusion.

‘Air of crisis’

There was said to be an air of crisis after it had emerged that the separate Holyrood committee inquiry had found that Ms Sturgeon had misled parliament.

“During that period of limbo, Sturgeon was taking counsel with her closest allies,” the book says.

“These included Swinney, whom she told to ‘be ready’ for what might come at the start of the week.

“In effect, she was preparing him to step up and take over as leader of the government and try to reunite a fractured SNP just weeks before a crucial Holyrood election.

She was preparing him to step up and take over as leader of the government and try to reunite a fractured SNP just weeks before a crucial Holyrood election.”

“Her popularity had soared back to levels not seen since the 2015 election campaign as the public showed their approval of her daily coronavirus press briefings, but it was Sturgeon’s view that the office of first minister was more important than her personal survival, and she would have resigned if Hamilton had been overtly critical or found that she had broken the rules.

“Such a move would have caused chaos both for a Scottish Government still in the grip of the pandemic and for the nationalist cause.

“It was to this end that Swinney was seen as the safe pair of hands to provide some calm amid the potential storm.”

‘Safe pair of hands’

In March, Mr Hamilton’s inquiry report cleared Ms Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code.

The high level concerns about Ms Sturgeon’s future have emerged following revelations that a senior civil servant had repeatedly raised concerns with Scottish Government bosses about alleged sexual harassment of female staff by Mr Salmond and became increasingly frustrated by their failure to act.

The official kept a diary containing nine separate claims from women as part of efforts to make them feel safe. Its existence is revealed in the new book.

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