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Nicola Sturgeon says claims of conspiracy against Alex Salmond ‘absurd’

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she had no reason to want to “get” Alex Salmond as she dismissed claims of a plot against him as “absurd

Nicola Sturgeon apologises for ‘catastrophic’ error in Alex Salmond affair

Scottish First Minister said she had a “profound concern” that the debacle would prevent women from reporting similar claims in the future and that she ultimately bore the responsibility.

Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to the Scottish public for the “catastrophic” mistake at the heart of her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against former First Minister Alex Salmond.

The First Minister said she had a “profound concern” that the debacle would prevent women from reporting similar claims in the future and that she ultimately bore the responsibility.

Giving evidence to MSPs examining the affair, she said she was “very, very, very sorry” that more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money had been lost on the judicial review case.

She also gave a detailed account of her dealings with Mr Salmond during the investigation, which are the focus of a separate inquiry into whether she broke the ministerial code.

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If the independent investigation judges that she misled MSPs and breached the rules, she is likely to be forced to resign, bringing to an end her decades-long political career.

It would also have profound implications for Scottish independence, with any successor unlikely to enjoy the level of popularity among the public earned by Ms Sturgeon.

The First Minister spent more than eight hours in front of MSPs at Holyrood, going into the events that led up to the collapse of the judicial review in 2019 in exhaustive detail.

As well as mounting a staunch defence of her conduct, she attacked Mr Salmond, sometimes growing emotional as she recounted the dramatic end of their 30-year friendship.

Taking responsibility

In her opening statement, Nicola Sturgeon apologised to the nation for what she described as a “very serious mistake” in the Scottish Government’s investigation into allegations into Alex Salmond, which ultimately led to the loss of a judicial review and £500,000 of public money.

Later, she said she had “profound concern” that the events might dent the confidence of other women in coming forward and that her government bore a “big responsibility” for this.

She was unable to say why nobody has resigned over the affair, telling MSPs that the process of “investigation and inquiry” is still ongoing two years later.

Her meetings with Mr Salmond

Ms Sturgeon was asked repeatedly about how she could have forgotten a meeting on 29 March 2018 at which she was first told of the harassment allegations facing Mr Salmond.

She said that at that meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, what stood out was “how worried” he appeared to be about the former First Minister’s welfare.

She also said she had harboured a “lingering suspicion” about such issues after an inquiry from Sky News the year before, so the suggestion did not come as a “massive shock”.

Asked if she agreed that her memory lapse sounded totally unbelievable, she said she could see why people might think this, but it “just happens to be the case”.

She also claimed that she believed another meeting set up for 2 April was “firmly in the personal and party space” given her concerns over Mr Salmond’s wellbeing.

She said she did not report it because she thought merely alerting civil servants that she knew about it could “compromise the independence” of the ongoing investigation.

Denying a plot against him

Ms Sturgeon dismissed suggestions that the allegations against Mr Salmond had been concocted, saying this was “not based on any semblance of fact or credible evidence”.

Asked about text messages sent between SNP officials discussing the case, which Mr Salmond has claimed proves the existence of a plot to jail him, she said she had seen some of them and that all they showed was a group of people trying to support one another.

She added that people were “upset” and “angry” in the wake of the charges being announced against their former leader. Mr Salmond was eventually cleared of all charges at his trial.

She claimed he was furious with her because she “refused to follow the age old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants”.

Describing his behaviour towards women as “not always appropriate”, she noted that he had uttered “not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgment of that”.

During her appearance, Ms Sturgeon was pressed on a series of meetings she held with Mr Salmond while the Scottish Government investigation was ongoing.

He has claimed she has repeatedly misled MSPs about a number of issues, including when she first knew about the claims, and has broken the ministerial code multiple times.

Much of the key questioning focused on why Ms Sturgeon had “forgotten” about a meeting on 29 March 2018 with Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff.

Mr Salmond has claimed she deliberately hid the meeting from MSPs because it undermined her claim that their second meeting on 2 April was about SNP business.

The distinction is important because while Ms Sturgeon was not obliged to declare a meeting on party matters, one involving Scottish Government business should have been recorded.

Ms Sturgeon said the earlier meeting had not stuck in her mind as she had already been aware of an allegation made about Mr Salmond in 2017, so it did not come as a “massive shock”.

She added that she had initially believed the second meeting was “firmly in the personal and party space” and that she did not disclose it afterwards because she did not want to influence civil servants conducting the investigation.

“I didn’t want to take the risk that they might be influenced, even subconsciously, by any assumption of how I might want the matter handled,” she said.