Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon denies she misled parliament over Alex Salmond claims

Parliamentary committee's findings on Sturgeon's actions may do lasting damage to Scottish National Party

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain March 18, 2021. Andy Buchanan/Pool via REUTERS
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Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denied on Thursday that she had misled parliament over how her government handled sexual misconduct claims against her predecessor in a dispute that threatens her goal of leading her nation to independence.

A Scottish parliamentary committee investigating how Ms Sturgeon and her administration in 2018 had dealt with sexual harassment allegations against her mentor, Alex Salmond, found that she had given misleading evidence, Sky News reported.

"I stand by all of the evidence I gave to the committee, all eight hours worth of evidence," Ms Sturgeon told Sky News, referring to her eight hours of testimony on March 3.

"Opposition members of this committee made their minds up about me before I uttered a single word of evidence."

Ms Sturgeon, who was already faced calls to resign, came under further pressure after the report, with the leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, Westminster MP Douglas Ross, saying she should quit immediately.

"We cannot set a precedent that a first minister of Scotland can mislead the Scottish Parliament and get away with it," he said.

Should Ms Sturgeon resign, it could not come at a worse time for her Scottish National Party, which, prior to the row over the investigation, had been predicted to win an absolute majority in the Scottish parliamentary in elections in May.

Ms Sturgeon said that an emphatic win would give her government another mandate to negotiate an independence referendum with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said he opposes such a vote.

But recent polls suggest a steady stream of negative headlines over her feud with Mr Salmond have dented the party's lead and may deprive it of that absolute majority.

In a 2014 referendum, Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the United Kingdom, but since then the situation has changed because of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 2016 referendum on membership in the European Union, 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in the bloc while the UK as a whole voted to leave.

This strengthened the SNP's hand and continued the wide margins of victory it has had in Scottish elections in the past decade.

In the early months of the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon was seen by most Scots as having handled the situation well, in sharp contrast with Mr Johnson, whose response was widely criticised.

The Salmond drama, which had been bubbling in the background since 2018 but boiled over after his own testimony to the parliamentary committee on February 26, could not only drive Ms Sturgeon out of her job but do lasting damage to her party.

Mr Salmond, who stood trial on 13 charges of sexual assault and was acquitted in 2020, portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiracy to drive him from public life. Ms Sturgeon rejected that as absurd.

In 2019, the Scottish Government admitted it had broken its own guidelines in its handling of the 2018 claims against Mr Salmond and had to pay more than £500,000 towards his expenses for a legal challenge.

In her testimony on March 3, she told the parliamentary committee that she had not offered to intervene in the Scottish government's handling of complaints made against Mr Salmond by two women.

"Taking account of the competing versions of the event, the committee believes that she did in fact leave Alex Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene," Sky News reported the committee saying in its conclusions.

"She has misled the committee on this matter. This is a potential breach of the ministerial code," the committee said. Such a breach would normally lead to a resignation under the Scottish parliamentary code of conduct.