Could the Alex Salmond messaging scandal currently rocking Holyrood spell the beginning of the end for Nicola Sturgeon?
Scotland was rocked by shocking allegations of sexual misconduct against its former leader last year, but now the fallout and revelations of behind-the-scenes skulduggery look like they could bring down the current first minister.
Watergate is synonymous with political scandal. The name stems from the Washington DC building housing the Democratic National Committee’s HQ, which was burgled by Richard Nixon campaign operatives, beginning the affair that ended in the president’s resignation.
Every scandal begins somewhere, that loose thread when pulled and pulled, causes it all to unravel. Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon could be on the brink of that after becoming embroiled in her own scandal – Text-gate.
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Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Peter Murrell has admitted sending WhatsApp messages, ordering the police to be pressured into investigating former first minister Alex Salmond. They were sent in January 2019 after several women accused Salmond of sexual misconduct.
For clarity, Salmond was cleared in court of all 12 charges earlier this year. However, the messages were unknown until an SNP figure was sent them in an anonymous document, after the trial. In the messages, Murrell referred to both Police Scotland and London’s Metropolitan Police, saying: “Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions… report now with the PF (procurator-fiscal) on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London.”
He continued that the “more fronts he [Salmond] is having to firefight on the better,” adding that “CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] action would be a good thing.” The CPS handles prosecutions in England and Wales, while the Procurator-Fiscal does the same in Scotland. Murrell has stated that they “been presented in a way that suggests a meaning that they do not in reality have.”
For those south of the border, something which is kept low-profile is that Sturgeon and Murrell are husband and wife. The two top positions in the SNP are shared in their marriage. This is at best highly unusual and at worst, unhealthy.
Sturgeon was Salmond’s deputy and viewed him as a mentor. It was he who almost lead Scotland to independence during the 2014 referendum and, after that failed, he quit and passed the torch to his protege.
So, when allegations broke about Salmond, it placed Sturgeon in a difficult position. While there is no suggestion she has done anything improper, there is a feeling of incomplete disclosure, and these messages are the smoking gun.
Last week, Sturgeon refused to answer if the messages were genuine, but now her husband has held his hands up. The secret document was flagged up in Scotland’s Daily Record in September, so something doesn’t add up. Two people in control of a political party would surely have discussed the matter, never mind a married couple.
As it stands, we have the husband of the first minister, apparently pulling strings behind the scenes to force the police to act on allegations about her mentor and predecessor. It’s hard to see how something untoward isn’t going on.
But it also doesn’t make much sense as to why Murrell would do such a thing. There was no need to kill off Salmond. He wasn’t looking to return to politics and even if he did, the failed referendum rendered that a non-starter. Sturgeon is also very popular, with colleagues and the electorate. The SNP has an impressive 48 seats at Westminster, the third-biggest party.
She has even been hailed by non-Scottish voters and research showed the UK population viewed her as the most impressive high-profile politician during the Covid crisis.
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With no need to consolidate power, why was Murrell urging police to tighten the screw on Salmond? He could have been trying to protect his wife but the messages now make previous developments appear worse. It was reported that Sturgeon knew about the allegations against Salmond five months earlier than originally thought. Sturgeon has now conceded she had “forgotten” about the meeting when she was informed.
That came out of the Scottish parliamentary inquiry which was instigated because there were concerns over how the Scottish government handled its own investigation into the allegations. A judicial review felt it acted unlawfully and forced it to pay Salmond £500,000 in legal expenses.
It’s a complex situation, but now the parliamentary inquiry has been halted.
The convenor said it has been “completely frustrated” by the lack of evidence handed over by the government, Salmond and Murrell. Murrell submitted a two-page written statement, revealing that when Salmond came to his and Sturgeon’s home where the two politicians are thought to have discussed the allegations, “Nicola told me she couldn’t discuss the details.”
According to Murrell, he only found out about them when they became public knowledge. Again, it seems strange for a married couple to not discuss something so momentous, particularly if they hold the two top posts in the political party which they affect.
Scottish Conservative Ruth Davidson took on Sturgeon in parliament over Murrell’s messages. Sturgeon said “it was unreasonable she was being asked to answer for someone else’s actions,” so Davidson has sent a letter to Murrell. Then a Conservative MSP was ejected from parliament last week, for labelling Sturgeon a “liar” with regards to her interactions with the Salmond inquiry.
The circles are getting smaller and smaller, as speculation and official proceedings focus on the interactions between a married couple (Sturgeon and Murrell) and Salmond. The drip feed of developments means Murrell can’t resign or be sacked, without taking his wife with him. So they have to hold station.
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Salmond is in the meantime working on a ‘tell-all’ book, which one insider predicted will be like a “volcanic eruption.”
There are also suspicions that Sturgeon is cranking up Covid lockdown conditions in Scotland to deflect attention from her husband’s messages.
That could be totally unfair, but maybe not. Like Watergate, this could be the beginning of something sinister that brings down Sturgeon and her government.
One thing is for sure, this isn’t going away.
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