Tory leader Ruth Davidson is standing in at Holyrood for Douglas Ross. Top: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell.
By Bill Heaney
The group of women who came forward to complain about sexual harassment by the former First Minister Alex Salmond “were utterly let down by the First Minister’s Government, and the fall-out from that is still going on,” according to stand-in Tory leader Ruth Davidson.
Ms Davidson told the Holyrood parliament today that at he Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints Committee, the chief executive of the Scottish National Party, Peter Murrell, gave evidence under oath to the parliamentary committee that is investigating the Scottish Government’s “botched handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond”.
She added: “That evidence plainly contradicted the First Minister’s version of events. Whose story does the First Minister find more believable—Peter Murrell’s or her own?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “I have already set out in written evidence the reasons for, and the circumstances of, my meeting with Alex Salmond. In a few weeks, I will in person answer questions from the committee on those matters.
“Only I can do that—only I can set out the circumstances and reasons for the decisions that I have made. The fact of the matter is that my husband had no role in those meetings and had no role in the matters that are under investigation by the committee.
“Ruth Davidson might want to attack my husband and use him as a weapon against me—people will draw their conclusions about that—but it does not change the basic fact of the matter, which is that he had no role in the issue.”
Ms Davidson persisted: “I am asking about that because a group of women who came forward were utterly let down by the First Minister’s Government, and the fall-out from that is still going on.
“If the First Minister does not want to answer for the consequences of her Government’s actions, shame on her.
“Like many members of the Parliament, I am in awe of the First Minister’s ability to believe that two completely opposing versions of events can be explained away so easily.
“Let us get back to the evidence that was given to a parliamentary committee. In his evidence, Mr Murrell said, under oath, that ‘the issue that was raised with Nicola at the time was a Scottish Government matter’.
“However, the First Minister has repeatedly claimed that the meetings were in “a party/personal capacity”. Those statements are clearly contradictory; they cannot both be correct. Which one of them is true?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “Ruth Davidson is wrong in how she opened that question. I do want to answer; I have not yet had the opportunity to sit before the committee and answer. I will get that opportunity in a few weeks. Not only am I obliged to do that, I am keen to do it.
“In my written evidence, I have set out the answers to the questions that Ruth Davidson has asked me. I have set out what I thought might raise immediate implications for my party in the meeting that I had with Alex Salmond, and why that turned out not to be the case.
“After that, my priority was to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the process. The committee will have the opportunity to question me on that.
“It is right and proper that it will do so, because I care about the implications—for the women who came forward with complaints and for any women who feel the need to come forward with complaints in the future.
“The inquiry is into an investigation of sexual harassment, which is why we should all treat it seriously. People who choose instead to indulge in wild conspiracy theories make it less likely, rather than more likely, that we will learn lessons from it.
“The fact of the matter is that it is for me to answer, because I am the leader of this Government. My husband is not a member of my Government; he had no role in those matters. It is for me to answer, so that is exactly what I will do.”
Ruth Davidson hit back: “As the First Minister said, the chief executive of the SNP is her husband; I was using his professional title. Under oath, he said that the meetings were Government business. However, in written testimony, the head of Scotland’s Government said that they were SNP business.
“Nicola Sturgeon seems to think that all our heads button up the back, because we are being asked to accept that the chief executive of the SNP popped his head round the door to find the First Minister of Scotland—who is, coincidentally, his wife—her predecessor, Alex Salmond, his chief of staff, her chief of staff and Mr Salmond’s lawyer, all sitting, unannounced, in his living room and he never asked a single question, then or since, about what that was all about.
“This morning, we learned that Angus Robertson, a former deputy leader to Nicola Sturgeon, was told 11 years ago of alleged inappropriateness by Mr Salmond. I take it that the First Minister’s line is that she had no idea about that, either—it is another allegation that just passed her by. Does she really think that that sounds plausible? Is that seriously what the First Minister is asking us to believe?”
Ms Sturgeon countered: “Yes—because it happens to be the truth. That might not suit what Ruth Davidson wants the situation to be, but I am afraid that that is the situation.
“On conversations—or lack of them—between me and my husband, I sometimes wonder whether Opposition members are revealing more about themselves than they are about me. [Interruption.] I heard that reaction from across the chamber.
“The fact of the matter is that I am First Minister of Scotland. I deal with confidential matters every day of my life. They range from national security matters through to market-sensitive commercial matters, and the whole range of things in between. I do not gossip about those things, even to my husband. I am the First Minister of the country, not the office gossip, and I take my responsibilities in that role extremely seriously.”
As the debate descended into what Scots commonly call “a stair-heed row, Ruth Davidson told MSPs: “The thing is, Mr Murrell did not just contradict the First Minister—he contradicted himself. First, he claimed that he had no prior knowledge of the First Minister’s meeting with Mr Salmond at their house, only to admit later that he had known about it the night before.
“That is all part of a piece: a First Minister who forgot about a meeting that she had had with Mr Salmond’s chief of staff, at which he discussed allegations of a sexual nature; who omitted even to acknowledge the existence of that meeting until it was revealed in a court of law; and who told BBC viewers that she did not know of any stories about Mr Salmond before he told her, only then to admit that she had actually been informed months before.
“There is a pattern here of sharp brains suddenly turning blank, contradictions piling up, and half-answers having to be dragged out of people who should know better. The First Minister and the chief executive of the SNP are intelligent and experienced political operatives. On this one issue, why is it that they cannot get their story straight?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “I do not accept that that is the case. Let me set out very clearly the situation that transpired. Back when the Scottish Government developed a process in the wake of all the #MeToo revelations, my priority was to make sure that my Government had in place a process that would allow complaints to be investigated without fear or favour. That was the right thing to do.
“When complaints came forward, the Scottish Government was right to investigate them, regardless of whom they were about. When I became aware of those complaints, my priority was to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the process.
“It is right and proper that the committee scrutinises the Scottish Government’s handling of the matter, and that it scrutinises my actions and decisions. I have no complaint about any of that, which is why I have put forward written evidence and why I look forward—if that is not a strange way of putting it—to the opportunity to sit in front of the committee and answer any questions that it has. It is for me and the Scottish Government to do that.
“I understand why Ruth Davidson wants to drag my husband into these matters, but the fact is that he had no role. It is for me to answer the questions, which is exactly what I will continue to do.”