SALMOND INQUIRY: STURGEON’S CLASH WITH TORY LEADER DAVIDSON

Tory interim leader Baroness Ruth Davidson, who is deputising at Holyrood until May for Douglas Ross MP, who will take over after the Scottish Parliament election.

By Bill Heaney

A rammy in the tradition of a good Scottish stairheid row took place in the Scottish Parliament when Conservative interim leader Ruth Davidson upbraided First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over her answers during the eight-hour session of the Salmond Inquiry yesterday.
Ms Davidson got the rough edge of the FM’s tongue in return when she asked about the the failure of the SNP government to take on board legal advice about the Judicial Review which has cost taxpayers more than £600,000 and is heading steadily towards £1 million.
She asked: “Despite the Parliament voting for that [the legal advice] to be released four months ago, it was only partially revealed this week.  Section 2.30 of the ministerial code makes it clear that ministers must act lawfully, informed of the legal considerations, and that ‘the legal implications of any course of action are considered at the earliest opportunity’.”
Ms Davidson added: “That part—acting early on the legal implications—is important.
Let us go through the timeline. Nine weeks before conceding the judicial review, legal advice stated that the case was more likely to fail than succeed. The First Minister chose to go forward. A month before the Government conceded, legal advice said that the least-worst option was to stop, or ‘expenses will be far higher’.
The First Minister chose the worst option. Nineteen days before the Government conceded, the Lord Advocate and Government and external lawyers all said that the case was not even statable, which was the minimum requirement.
“The First Minister dug her heels in. Will she tell us why the Government tried for so long to defend what her own legal counsel called “the indefensible’?”
With that nippiness, which it seems only she can conjure up, the First Minister replied: “As anybody who paid any attention to the lengthy proceedings yesterday, which clearly does not include Ruth Davidson, will have seen, that is simply not true.
On 11 December, the law officers were very clear. The information on that has been published, and the quote from the law officers that was summarised in the note that was published in advance of yesterday was that there was ‘no question’ that the case should be dropped; on the contrary, there were ‘credible arguments to make across the petition  …  including on the issue of the appointment of the investigating officer. That was the position of the law officers.

“Things started to go seriously wrong in the case in the days that followed. Due process was followed and that led to a decision by the Government to concede the case.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Deputy John Swinney. Both are threatened with no confidence votes in Scottish Parliament.

“That is there for anyone with an open mind to look at. I think that the Deputy First Minister [John Swinney] has undertaken to provide some further information to the committee, which will happen, and Parliament can look at that.

“I answered questions on this for eight hours yesterday. I answered every question that was put to me. I intend to rest on that now and to allow both the committee and the inquiry on the ministerial code to conclude their work.

“In the meantime, I will get on with the job that I suspect most people watching now at home want me to get on with, which is leading the country through and out of a pandemic. I will leave Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives to play the political games that they seem to prioritise over everything else.”

Davidson was unfazed. She replied: “The First Minister characterises this as ‘political games’, but I have never forgotten the women at the heart of the inquiry, who were failed. The First Minister cannot get away from the fact that it was her Government that failed them and that questions still require to be answered.

Whether the Government ignored legal advice and cost taxpayers money is not up for question. What is being argued is how long they ignored advice for and how much money was wasted. That is what is truly incredible. The view of legal counsel was ‘based on the facts as then known’.

Advocates Christine O’Neill and Roddy Dunlop advised the government to withdraw.

“The Government did not even give its own lawyers the facts. Advocates Roddy Dunlop and [Dumbarton-born] Christine O’Neill stated: ‘We have each experienced extreme professional embarrassment.’

“On instruction, they made plainly and demonstrably untrue statements before a judge. Documents that were highly relevant, yet undisclosed, were withheld from those queen’s counsel. They called that ‘unexplained and frankly inexplicable’. They refused to ‘rehearse the regrettable way in which the document disclosure has unfolded’,  so I will ask the First Minister to rehearse it for us now. Will she confirm that the withheld documents were precisely the ones that made the case unstatable?”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “First, I will agree with something that Ruth Davidson said. I agree that she has not forgotten the women at the heart of this, because I do not think that Ruth Davidson ever remembered the women at the heart of this.

“The legal advice is there for everyone to see. People with open minds, which does not include Ruth Davidson, can look at that. Ruth Davidson says that she is not playing political games. I beg to differ. I think that we saw the true colours of the Conservatives yesterday.

“I do not know whether Ruth Davidson approved the comment or not, but on Tuesday night the Conservatives more or less said that it did not matter what I said before the parliamentary committee yesterday because they had already made up their minds. It is not about due process: it is political desperation on the part of the Conservatives.

“We also had a glimpse yesterday of some of the values at play within the Conservatives. During that committee session, one of the Tory members seemed to be suggesting that I should have intervened in the process to effectively sweep the allegations against Mr Salmond under the carpet.  Then the other Conservative member asked me to apologise for the inappropriate behaviour of a man.

“There we have the Tories demonstrating, without any help from me, that they are playing political games. While they do that, I say again that I gave eight hours of evidence at the committee and it is time to allow the committee and the independent inquiry into the ministerial code to do their jobs. In the meantime, I am going to get on with my job of leading the country through Covid and out of lockdown.”

Ruth Davidson stuck with it: “We have every right to question a First Minister, who is the head of a Government and who failed those two women. I want everyone to understand how incompetent and secretive the Government is.

“Legal counsel were provided with one email in a chain. It was a crucial element of their defence. However, they were not given the next email, which was sent less than half an hour later, in the same chain; it was withheld.

“When it was finally handed over, it was one of the final straws and the First Minister’s lawyers had to threaten to resign to force the Government’s hand. That information was available the whole time.

“The Government could have passed it to its lawyers in September or October or November, but it withheld it and kept it secret. That cost the legal team months and all of us £0.5 million of taxpayers money. Why was the crucial evidence withheld for months from the Government’s own legal team?”

The First Minister, who became animated, replied: “The case ultimately collapsed because information came to light. I set that out in the committee yesterday, and people can judge by looking at the advice that was published themselves. Of course, the committee will come to its conclusions, as will the independent inquiry on the ministerial code. I await the findings of both.

“Again, I want to strike a note of consensus, because I believe in the importance of this democratic institution. By the time I sit down after this session of First Minister’s questions today, I will have been subjected—rightly and properly—to 10 hours of parliamentary scrutiny this week. That is me doing my job and discharging my responsibilities.

“However, I gently point out to Ruth Davidson that this democratic institution that she extols the virtues of is the same democratic institution that she is about to leave to take up a seat in the unelected House of Lords. People across this country are becoming heartily sick of the soon-to-be Baroness Davidson lecturing anybody else on democracy.”

Ruth Davidson then infuriated the First Minister by asking her to resign. She said: “Because of the legal advice that had to be dragged from the Government under the threat of a vote of no confidence, we know that, for weeks, the Government was definitively and beyond any doubt ignoring legal advice.

“The case only became unstatable so late because the Government withheld crucial documents for so long. It withheld documents from its own lawyers. It withheld documents from the courts. It continues to withhold documents from Parliament.

What we have already seen shows that there is no argument that the Government ignored legal advice; it did. The argument is about whether it did so for three weeks or more than three months. There is no argument that the First Minister was at fault for losing more than £0.5 million of taxpayers’ money; the argument is only about how much she is to blame for it.

“There is no argument that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code; the argument is only about how badly she broke it.  We believe that the sanction is for her to go—why doesn’t she?

Court of Session, where the Judicial Review case was lost by the SNP government.

But the First Minister, looking remarkably fit after that long committee session yesterday, responded: “Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives have just shown their true colours all over again. She stands up here and says that scrutiny, democracy and due process are really important but, just as on Tuesday night, when the Conservatives prejudged my evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, she has just prejudged the outcome of the independent inquiry into the ministerial code.

“This is just about desperate political games for the Conservatives. I suspect that their private polling is even more desperate than the public polling right now. We should remember that the people of Scotland have been voting no confidence in the Conservatives since the 1950s and I think that we are about to see why.

“I will get on with my job. I will let the inquiries do their jobs. I have not prejudged them; Ruth Davidson clearly has.

“In a few weeks, I will also subject myself to the ultimate scrutiny: the scrutiny and the verdict of the people of Scotland, which is the verdict that matters most. As I do so, Ruth Davidson will be slinking off to the House of Lords.”

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