By Bill Heaney
The Alex Salmond case has already cost £1 million of public money – and the meter is still running on the SNP government’s folly of keeping it going.
And First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been forced on to the back foot to deny that she doesn’t think she is a better lawyer than Roddy Dunlop QC or Harvard-educated advocate Christine O’Neill from Dumbarton.
Tory interim leader Ruth Davidson told the Holyrood parliament this week: “Last week, we asked about legal advice in the Alex Salmond case and the First Minister refused to answer any questions. We were told that every issue had been covered.
“The next day, after First Minister’s question time and two days after her evidence session, John Swinney released another tranche of legal advice that was even more damning than the last. I will ask the questions that the committee could not ask about the evidence that the Government was so reluctant to release.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, advocate Christine O’Neill and Roddy Dunlop QC.
“The new evidence shows that the Government’s senior lawyer, Roddy Dunlop QC, warned the First Minister personally not to “plough on regardless” because of ‘the large expenses bill that would inevitably arise’. How much taxpayers’ money has the case cost from that moment on?”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “We set out the costs of the judicial review. I do not have that breakdown to hand, but I can look into whether we can provide that breakdown to Parliament. Ruth Davidson, in some respects, makes my point for me. Let me say first that, whether the Opposition wants to believe this or not, I take the matter extremely seriously and I take very seriously the obligation on me and my Government to learn lessons from it.
“The point that I think Ruth Davidson is making for me is that she is quoting from the legal advice that has been published. We have published all the substantive legal advice, which sets out very clearly—[Interruption.]
“I can take Parliament through exactly what we have published in response to the request for that advice. We have set out the substantive legal advice and, although I suspect that most people who are watching right now probably want to hear about vaccination,
“Covid and when we might come out of lockdown, anybody who wants to read the legal advice can go on to the Scottish Government website and do that.
“What that legal advice sets out very clearly, warts and all, is an unvarnished account of what went wrong and the opinions of senior counsel at different stages of the judicial review.
“It sets out very clearly the error that was made by the Scottish Government and the way in which that error came to be fully realised and understood.
“It also sets out the view of the law officers—under the ministerial code, that is what matters to ministers—that, well into December and notwithstanding all of that, the Government should continue to defend the case for the wider reasons that have been set out, and then, later in December, the reasons why that was no longer possible.
“The impression that I think the Opposition is trying to give is that what we have published is somehow a rosy picture and that there are horrors lurking underneath that are being concealed.
“Anybody who reads the advice can see very clearly that that is not the case. A serious error was made by the Government in that investigation, and, as the judicial review proceeded, that error became very apparent.
“That is why, ultimately, the judicial review had to be conceded. Perhaps, instead of chasing phantoms, the Opposition should focus on what is there, because it sets out very clearly the mistake that the Government made, the lessons that it needs to learn from that and the lessons that I am determined that the Government will learn from it?”
Ruth Davidson pressed on with her question: “I asked the First Minister a very specific question. Whatever that was, it was not an answer. We have since learned that, from the moment that Roddy Dunlop wrote that note, on 17 December, to the time when the Government finally conceded, the bill exceeded £100,000—perhaps even £200,000—but we do not know for sure, because the Government will not tell us its side of the bill.
“Before the First Minister’s committee session, we knew that Queen’s Counsel had stated that ‘the ‘least worst’ option would be to concede the case’.
“That was on 6 December 2018, a month before the case was finally collapsed. What we did not know last week and found out only on Friday is that the First Minister personally disputed that advice.
“We know that because Leslie Evans sent a note that said that she and the First Minister were unclear about what had changed since the previous notes and the first ministerial meeting.
“Again, I put it to the First Minister that, if she had conceded then, hundreds of thousands of pounds would have been saved.
“Why did the First Minister think that she was a better lawyer than Roddy Dunlop QC and the advocate Christine O’Neill?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “I did not and I most definitely do not. What I do know is that it is my job as First Minister to ask questions, to query things when I do not fully understand what has been put before me and to make sure that I have as full an understanding of the decisions that lie before me as possible. I actually think that it would be more remarkable and more deserving of criticism if I did not ask questions such as the one that Ruth Davidson has just suggested that I asked.”