Nicola Sturgeon did not breach ministerial code over Alex Salmond controversy, independent inquiry finds

QC’s report ‘accepts first minister’s account’ that she forgot crucial meeting over harassment claims

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 22 March 2021 21:11
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Nicola Sturgeon reacts as inquiry finds she did not breach ministerial code

Nicola Sturgeon has been cleared of breaching the ministerial code over the Alex Salmond controversy, by an independent investigation.

The crucial report, by QC James Hamilton, has ruled: “I am of the opinion that the first minister did not breach the provisions of the ministerial code in respect of any of these matters.”

On the issue of whether the Scottish parliament was misled, his report says that is up to Holyrood “to decide”.

The Hamilton report has been seen as crucial in deciding Ms Sturgeon’s future, more than a separate inquiry by what she called a “partisan” committee of MSPs.

Attempting to draw a line, the first minister said: “I welcome the conclusions of James Hamilton’s independent investigation, which are comprehensive, evidence-based and unequivocal.”

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The verdict appeared, at a stroke, to remove any threat that Ms Sturgeon would lose a vote of confidence to be held by the Conservatives on Tuesday.

The Scottish Green Party announced they would support her, saying: “Mr Hamilton has clearly concluded that the first minister did not breach the ministerial code.”

Ms Sturgeon had admitted not giving Holyrood the full picture about when she first heard about the investigation into harassment complaints against her predecessor, in 2017.

She later acknowledged an earlier discussion with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, but argued that was only in general terms – not a detailed account – and that she had forgotten about it.

Crucially, Mr Hamilton backed that account, while saying it was “regrettable” that the meeting on 29 March that year had been omitted from her account.

“In my opinion, however, her explanation for why she did not recall this meeting when giving her account to parliament, while inevitably likely to be greeted with suspicion, even scepticism by some, is not impossible,” he wrote.

“What tilts the balance towards accepting the first minister’s account for me is that I find it difficult to think of any convincing reason why, if she had in fact recalled the meeting, she would have deliberately concealed it while disclosing all the conversations she had had with Mr Salmond.”

It would also have been “naive to think that the meeting would remain secret given the first minister’s poor relationship with Mr Salmond at that point”, the QC added.

If Ireland’s former chief prosecutor had ruled against Ms Sturgeon, she would almost certainly have had to quit – just six weeks before crucial Holyrood elections the SNP is expected to win.

Such an extraordinary twist would have plunged the campaign for a second Scottish independence referendum into turmoil, after months when the “Yes” campaign has held a poll lead.

Ms Sturgeon urged her opponents to throw in the towel, adding: “As I have previously made clear, I did not consider that I had broken the code, but these findings are official, definitive and independent adjudication of that.

“Prior to its publication, opposition politicians stressed the importance of respecting and accepting the outcome of Mr Hamilton’s independent inquiry, and I committed wholeheartedly to doing so. Now that he has reported, it is incumbent on them to do likewise.”

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