What questions will Nicola Sturgeon be asked on Wednesday?

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

On Wednesday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is due to give evidence under oath to a committee of Holyrood MSPs investigating the Scottish government’s botched inquiry into complaints against Alex Salmond.

Here are some of the questions she is likely to face:

When did she first learn of concerns about Alex Salmond’s alleged behaviour?

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of misleading parliament about what she knew and when, a potential breach of the ministerial code. She originally told Holyrood and the media she first learned Salmond faced allegations of sexual misconduct directly from him, when they met at her home on 2 April 2018.

In August 2018, the day after news leaked that two internal complaints against him had been upheld, she told the BBC: “I heard about the fact of the investigation initially from Alex Salmond himself in April.” She added: “I have had no prior knowledge of complaints having been made.”

The day Salmond won his judicial review on 8 January 2019, the first minister told Holyrood: “I was informed about the investigation, yes, by Alex Salmond.” She repeated that in parliament on 10 January.

Sturgeon has also admitted she knew in November 2018 that Sky News had made inquiries about alleged incidents involving Salmond at Edinburgh airport. She spoke to Salmond about it and he denied any incident took place. That month she agreed her government’s new policy on sexual harassment should include historic complaints involving former ministers.

Scrutiny over who knew what and when heightened in October 2020, when she admitted in evidence to the Holyrood inquiry she had met Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s former chief of staff, in her Holyrood office on 29 March 2018.

“I think it did cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature,” she said.

Related: The feud between Sturgeon and Salmond could derail Scottish independence | Martin Kettle

Aberdein alleges the inquiry was discussed at that meeting – four days earlier than she claimed. He also alleges a complainer was named to him by someone in her office.

Why did she agree to meet Salmond and to continue talking to him?

Sturgeon told parliament on 8 January 2019 she spoke to Salmond about the case five times during 2018: in person at her home on 2 April, by phone on 23 April, in person at SNP conference on 7 June, at her home on 14 July and lastly by phone on 18 July. She also exchanged WhatsApp messages with him.

She told parliament she did so as SNP leader, suggesting later in evidence she thought he might be about to resign from the party. Her husband, Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP, told MSPs they met in her role as first minister. Murrell was not told why they were meeting on 2 April. If it was party business of that significance, why was he excluded?

Salmond alleges Sturgeon knew when she met Aberdein on 29 March the inquiry was under way, and they organised the 2 April meeting that day. Aberdein alleges the name of a complainer was leaked to him before 29 March. Salmond also turned up at Sturgeon’s house with his lawyer, Duncan Hamilton, a respected advocate. If it was SNP business and about his resignation, why would he take a lawyer?

Did she offer to intervene on Salmond’s behalf at the first meeting?

The first minister had consistently stated in parliament and to the media she made no offer or attempt to intervene in the government inquiry, as she knew that was inappropriate.

Salmond alleged last week Sturgeon did offer to put forward his concerns to officials on 2 April, although she later retracted that offer.

If Sturgeon knew it was wrong to intervene or offer to help Salmond, why then did she agree to meet him at all? If she made no offer to intervene, why discuss it with him five times and exchange a number of WhatsApp messages?

Why did Sturgeon take so long to inform the civil service?

Sturgeon said she first told Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, she knew about the internal inquiry and had been discussing it with Salmond on 6 June – roughly 11 weeks after meeting Salmond and 12 weeks after meeting Aberdein.

This raises a number of further questions: doesn’t that mean Sturgeon realised it was government business? If it was, why did she continue to meet Salmond and discuss it with him without civil service involvement and minutes being taken?

What did Evans say to her? Did Evans authorise her to continue discussing it with Salmond? Did she tell Evans she had also met Aberdein?

Did she go against legal advice to abandon the case against Salmond? If so, why?

In October 2018 it emerged the senior civil servant who had investigated Salmond had had prior contact with both complainers – while they were deciding whether to formally complain and before the government harassment policy had been signed.

Salmond alleges the government’s external counsel, Roddy Dunlop QC, now the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, warned this damaged the government’s case. It raised questions of a conflict of interest. He claims Sturgeon was told this in November yet the government refused to concede defeat.

Dunlop then allegedly threatened to resign, and it took until late December before Evans agreed to concede. Opposition MSPs said that delay greatly increased the legal costs, which exceed £600,000. Salmond says that delay was a breach of the ministerial code. Did Sturgeon agree to continue fighting the case, despite Dunlop’s warnings? If so, why?