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EDINBURGH, Feb 25 — A simmering feud between Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor and mentor Alex Salmond boiled over this week, with bombshell accusations that could have serious implications for the country’s independence ambitions.
Salmond has accused the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader of misleading parliament, and her closest allies of conspiring to get him “imprisoned” over sexual assault claims that he beat in court last year.
When did the row begin?
The rift between the former colleagues began when two female civil servants made sexual harassment allegations against Salmond in 2018.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Sturgeon had asked for the devolved government in Edinburgh to establish new policies on handling such claims—a move Salmond believes was aimed at him.
The government’s lawyers were forced to accept that the officer put in charge of investigating the allegations had previous contact with the complainants.
A court concluded the probe was “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias”.
What happened to the allegations?
Salmond was arrested in January 2019 and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape, against nine women while he was first minister.
He was cleared of all 13 charges at a trial last March, where he said the claims were “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”.
He said there was “certain information” which would “see the light of day” in a remark believed to be aimed at Sturgeon.
What is Salmond alleging now?
The Scottish Parliament is now holding two inquiries: one into how the government handled the initial complaints, the other into whether Sturgeon interfered with the probe or lied to parliament.
Salmond this week submitted claims to the inquiry that there had been ”a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals within the Scottish government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned”.
He also claimed there had been a “complete breakdown of the necessary barriers which should exist between government, political party and the prosecution authorities”.
The first probe is looking into a text sent by Sturgeon’s husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, which appeared to show him wanting to put pressure on the police to take action against Salmond after the government’s case collapsed.
What was the response?
The Scottish parliament published Salmond’s claims online, but Crown Office, Scotland’s prosecution service, forced parliament to take down some of Salmond’s claims.
Most contentiously the prosecution service told parliament to redact a paragraph that alleges Sturgeon breached the ministerial code by making an “untrue” statement to Holyrood in 2019.
This led Salmond to cancel Wednesday’s appearance before the inquiry while he seeks legal advice.
It also led to a fiery session in parliament on Thursday, when Sturgeon accused former Conservative leader in Scotland Ruth Davidson of spreading “dangerous and quite deluded conspiracy theories” after she questioned the Crown Office’s actions.
Is Sturgeon’s job on the line?
The most immediate threat to Sturgeon is the accusation that she misled parliament over a meeting between herself and Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, in March 2018, when she is said to have been told about the allegations against Salmond for the first time.
Sturgeon initially told parliament she only learned of the allegations from Salmond a few days later.
She later claimed to have “forgotten” about the first meeting.
If she is found to have breached the parliamentary code, she would be under huge pressure to resign.
What does it mean for Scotland?
Sturgeon — riding high in the polls on the back of her handling of the coronavirus outbreak — is pushing for another referendum on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom and become an independent nation.
A 2014 referendum in Scotland saw 55 per cent vote “no” to independence.
She is hoping a resounding SNP victory in May’s local elections would provide a mandate that the UK government could not ignore.
But the bitter row and scrutiny of her administration could upend those plans, despite support for independence hitting record highs. — AFP
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