First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive. Top of the page: Conservative interim leader Ruth Davidson.
By Bill Heaney
Davidson, who will take her seat in the House of Lords after the Scottish Parliament elections in May, told MSPs: “The Scottish National Party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, might have committed perjury by changing his story under oath to an inquiry of a committee of this Parliament.
“However, he has been clear about one thing: Nicola Sturgeon did not discuss the Alex Salmond meetings with him as her party chief executive.
“That is about the only thing that he has given a straight answer on. He was certain that the meetings were on Government business. Did Peter Murrell tell the truth under oath?”
A remarkably un-flustered Sturgeon replied: “Yes, Peter Murrell did tell the truth. Of course, he is perfectly capable of standing up for himself and does not need me to do that.
“I will, assuming that the committee does not postpone my appearance again, get my opportunity to set out to it my account next Tuesday. I relish that opportunity.
“It is perhaps clear to everyone why the Opposition parties are so keen to drag Peter Murrell into a process that he had no part in, and to damage him.
“Perhaps they know how integral he has been during the past 15 years to the electoral success of the SNP and, conversely, to the electoral defeats of those parties. Their motive is very transparent, indeed.”
After that peon of praise for her husband from Sturgeon, Davidson said: “The First Minister said that Peter Murrell told the truth, but the SNP chief executive’s evidence conflicts with the First Minister’s, and only one of them can be right.”
She added: “There is a pattern here: a ruling party of government acting as though it is beyond reproach, a chief executive changing his story, a suddenly forgetful First Minister, votes in Parliament ignored and promises of co-operation broken.
“Officials who have been coached at taxpayers’ expense have been forced to change their evidence, and lawyers have shut down key witnesses and statements.
“The Parliament—the country—should not have to put up with that. Therefore, today I am sharing evidence that the committee will not publish. This evidence has been shut down even though it is already in the public domain.
“The First Minister does not need to wait for her committee appearance to answer these questions, because the committee will not publish the evidence anyway.
“Alex Salmond says that the First Minister set up a meeting on 14 July 2018, in her home, and that after that she called him on 18 July to discuss the ongoing situation. Did the permanent secretary know about those meetings before they happened?”
Former First Minister Alex Salmond has refused to give evidence to the committee.
Sturgeon said she had already set out an account of the dates on which she spoke to Alex Salmond, in person and on the telephone – “In my written evidence. I told the permanent secretary that those meetings had happened, and I told the committee in written evidence when all that happened. I will go into all of it in detail, under oath, before the committee next week. That is the right and proper way to do this.
“I want to sit in front of the committee. I have been having accusations levelled at me for two years now, but have not been able to answer them fully because, first, of the ongoing criminal proceedings, then laterally out of respect for the process of the committee.
“I am not refusing to sit in front of the committee; I am relishing the prospect of doing it, because then people will be able to hear my account and make up their own minds. In the meantime, I will get on with doing the job that people across the country want me to do, which is to lead it through a pandemic.”
Davidson was not content with that answer. She replied: “If we pick our way through that answer, it sounds like the First Minister only informed the permanent secretary after the meeting and the phone call. Let us get the story straight.
“In everyone else’s mind—including Peter Murrell’s—this was always a Government matter. However, according to the First Minister’s story, it only became a Government matter on 6 June, when she wrote to the permanent secretary to say that she knew about the investigation. Therefore, this became, to the First Minister’s mind, a Government matter on 6 June. It being a Government matter, she then—a month later—set up a meeting with Alex Salmond, in her house, on 14 July. Then, she called him four days later. All that was on a Government matter, without any official being present or record being taken, and it was all against the ministerial code.”
The Tory interim leader asked the FM: “If she knew that it was Government business on 6 June, she set up the July meetings and phone calls without an official being present or a record being taken?”
Sturgeon reply was scathing: “A moment ago, Ruth Davidson said that she was going to reveal evidence that nobody would otherwise hear. As far as I recall—people can check my written evidence—everything that she has just said is set out in the written evidence that I have already given to the committee. It is published, and it has been for months.
“I have been patiently waiting to give oral evidence to the committee, but my date on which to do that has been postponed—I understand the reasons why—certainly two and perhaps three times. I certainly hope to be sitting in front of the committee, answering all these questions, under oath next Tuesday morning. People can listen to that and make up their own minds.
“I believe that it is important to subject myself to scrutiny and to make sure that the Government is subjected to scrutiny, but it is also important to have the opportunity to tackle head-on some of the ridiculous conspiracy theories that people such as Ruth Davidson have, in my view, been all too quick to indulge.
“I call on anybody who has anything that would help with the process of the committee to do what I am going to do, which is to put an account on the record, under oath. I am not the one who is refusing to do that.”
This appeared to be a dig at Alex Salmond who has refused to give evidence to the inquiry.
Sturgeon added: “I undertook all my meetings, as I have said before, in my capacity as party leader. I will set that out again orally. I informed the permanent secretary in June when I thought that the Government was going to be subjected to a legal challenge. I have made all that clear.
“All along, I was determined that I was doing nothing to intervene in or to compromise the confidentiality, independence and integrity of a process that was kicked off because women—whose voices have, to be frank, too often been lost in this process—came forward with complaints.
“I thought that it was important that those complaints were properly investigated and not swept under the carpet just because of the seniority and party affiliation of the person whom they were about.
“I will set out my account openly and fully. I relish having—at long last—the opportunity to do that.”
Davidson said that women in the Salmond sexual harassment case, in which he was cleared of all charges, were failed – “The women were failed—they were failed by system that was set up by the First Minister’s Government.
“While they were being failed, the First Minister knew exactly what she was meeting Alex Salmond about.
“She chose not to tell her officials in advance and she chose not to keep a record. She kept on speaking to Alex Salmond all throughout the process—the process that failed all those women. Then she came into this chamber and told Parliament things that have been utterly contradicted by her own evidence and testimony.
The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh where the debate took place.
“We have women who have been failed, taxpayers’ money and a cover-up at the heart of Government. The whole affair stinks to high heaven. Someone should take responsibility for those failings. Should not it be the First Minister?”
Sturgeon appeared unfazed by the Tory leader’s questions: “Scrutiny of the Government and of my role as First Minister is right and proper, which is why I am freely subjecting myself to that scrutiny next Tuesday. I have waited a long time to get the opportunity to do that, and I now relish the opportunity.
“What is very clear—it has certainly been clear from Ruth Davidson and, I think, from some members of the committee—is that it does not matter to some people what I say next Tuesday. It does not matter what any of us say to the committee, because those people have prejudged the issues. They have decided in advance what are the rights and wrongs of the situation.
“The roots of this whole issue are in complaints that came forward not about my behaviour, but about somebody else’s behaviour. It was right that those complaints were properly investigated. We know, because this is why the judicial review action collapsed as it did, that the Government made a mistake in its application of procedure.
“I deeply regret that, because I think that it let women down. However, in my view, a process that indulges conspiracy theories without insisting that people come before the committee to substantiate those theories also lets down the women.
“The scrutiny of me and my Government is right and proper, and I do not shy away from it. On the contrary—I have been waiting a long time to sit before the committee and face up to it.
“Of course, another on-going process is looking into whether—or not, as I would say—I breached the ministerial code. It is important to allow that to take its course, as well.
“It feels to me as though certain people in the chamber have already prejudged all that and are not interested in what I have, or anybody else has, to say about it”