image captionThe inquiry committee has been moving between virtual and in-person meetings during the pandemic
MSPs investigating the Scottish government’s botched handling of complaints against Alex Salmond had planned a pivotal session with the former first minister. However, they have been left with more questions than ever after the meeting was called off.
With only weeks left for the committee to take evidence, and the attendance of a key witness hanging in the balance, where does this leave the inquiry?
Alex Salmond had been widely expected to attend a meeting on Tuesday of a Holyrood inquiry into the government’s mishandling of sexual harassment complaints against him.
The session was expected to see the escalating row between Mr Salmond and his successor in Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon, enter its endgame.
However, the meeting was called off as the latest development in a long-running dispute between the former first minster and the committee over what evidence could be produced and published.
There is little time left for Mr Salmond to give evidence, with MSPs rushing to complete their hearings and compile a report before Holyrood breaks up in March ahead of the coming election.
With Ms Sturgeon pencilled in as the closing witness on 16 February, there are literally days left to find an agreement if the former SNP leader is to appear,
image captionAlex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are the final witnesses to appear before the Holyrood inquiry
What next for the committee?
MSPs will be comforted by the fact the most important witness of all – Ms Sturgeon – is still on track to attend, and indeed says she is looking forward to putting her side of the story.
What remains to be seen is whether they can get Mr Salmond in before then too.
The core issue appears to be whether the committee publishes a submission he made which alleges – in detail – that Ms Sturgeon broke the ministerial code.
He says he cannot live up to an oath to “tell the whole truth” without being able to refer to this document, and that the group cannot make a full report without taking it into consideration.
The decision is not entirely down to the nine MSPs on the committee – it is also a question for Holyrood’s cross-party management board, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, and its team of in-house lawyers.
As it stands they are sticking to their guns and saying the submission cannot be published. There are parts they could not countenance publishing themselves, and given it has leaked out in full elsewhere online they feel they cannot even offer a redacted version.
They say Mr Salmond could “speak freely in committee about all of his contact with Nicola Sturgeon and his views on her actions” and that much of the paper could still be referred to.
However, Mr Salmond’s lawyers say this is not good enough. And they have lined up a series of other asks, including “very specific direction” on every matter which he would not be allowed to speak to due to court orders – a bar which seems unlikely to be met in the short time remaining.
image captionMr Salmond was acquitted of charges of sexual assault following a trial in March 2020
What might Alex Salmond do instead?
There have been suggestions that Mr Salmond might hold a news conference of some kind instead of appearing at Holyrood.
He has, after all, been waiting almost a year to have his say. He walked free from the High Court last March on the very day the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, saying there was “certain evidence” he wanted to come to light – but noting that it would have to wait.
A press conference would give Mr Salmond greater control over a number of key matters. These include the timing – he could have his say after Nicola Sturgeon’s evidence session, and thus the “last word” – and crucially the content, being bound only by the advice of his own lawyers rather than those of the parliament.
He also would not be facing questions from a panel of his political rivals, a grilling under oath about a sensitive subject – but instead sparring with the press, something he rather enjoyed as first minister.
However, while such a session would attract plenty of attention, it would not have the same gravitas as a Holyrood appearance. Any allegations he levelled might not have the same legitimacy coming from behind a home-made podium as they would in a parliamentary setting.
What he opts to do may depend on what Mr Salmond’s ultimate goal is. If he just wants to state his own position, a press conference may suit. But if he is looking for some greater outcome – ranging from heads rolling at an official level to the potential downfall of Ms Sturgeon herself – then he may judge he has a better chance from inside the inquiry room.
image captionIt has been suggested that Alex Salmond may look to hold a press conference instead of attending at Holyrood
What will opposition MSPs do?
There has been much disquiet from opposition members in particular about the way the inquiry has played out – and how it keeps running into walls.
Beyond the cooperation of key players, there are elements of the overall probe which are inextricably tied up with the High Court trial which saw Mr Salmond acquitted of charges of sexual assault – and which cannot be referred to without risking the anonymity of the complainers.
Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton has said the committee is “in crisis”, and there have been reports that other members may consider resigning in protest.
To start with, this may be unlikely before Ms Sturgeon gives evidence. Members will not want to forfeit the chance to quiz the first minister.
But after that, they face the prospect of trying to hash out a report, despite partisan divisions over what it should say and potentially only a partial set of evidence to draw from.
It may be that some members calculate that they could make a bigger splash by simply blowing the whole thing up and walking away from the committee – but this would be very much a last resort.
What does it mean for Nicola Sturgeon?
The drama over Mr Salmond’s appearance is in a way simply a distraction for Ms Sturgeon – firstly from the Covid-19 pandemic, but also from her own upcoming witness session.
Whether her predecessor shows up will not change the substance of what the FM needs to do, which is to conclusively settle the questions over what she knew and when.
Of course, the committee may not have the final word on that matter. The more significant investigation may well be that of James Hamilton, the independent advisor on the ministerial code.
image captionCommittee members are unlikely to want to give up the chance to question Nicola Sturgeon
While the committee’s remit is primarily about failings in government procedures and their application, Mr Hamilton’s probe will answer a much more straightforward question, of whether or not the first minister misled parliament and broke her own code of conduct, and thus his findings may prove far more significant.
Mr Salmond may have already concluded this – his controversial submission was originally made to Mr Hamilton – and he may be placing less emphasis on the committee because of it.
However, this is not something Ms Sturgeon can afford to do. As first minister she will have to answer to both investigations, and there will be intense scrutiny on her witness session whenever it eventually comes.
When the history of the Holyrood inquiry is written, it might be concluded that it was boxed in from the very outset by its remit and by court orders, and the necessity that it not cut across or re-run any of the criminal proceedings.
That said, it could still play a pivotal role in the future of the current first minister.