• The Star Staff

With her job on the line, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon hits back at critics

By Stephen Castle

Accused of lying, breaking official rules and conspiring against her predecessor, Alex Salmond, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland fought back hard Wednesday against allegations that have cast a shadow over her future and over the prospects for Scottish independence.

In nearly eight tense hours of testimony before the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon denied plotting against Salmond or breaching ministerial rules during a botched internal investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him.

Opponents had called for Sturgeon’s resignation even before she spoke, but on Wednesday she appealed to lawmakers to trust her account of a bewildering sequence of events. And she rejected what she called the “absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond.”

Sturgeon also went on the attack, pointedly criticizing her predecessor’s failure to acknowledge last week, in his evidence to the same committee, that he had behaved inappropriately toward women.

“I know from what he told me that his behavior was not always appropriate, and yet, across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgment of that,” she said.

Wednesday’s session was the culmination of an extraordinary feud between Sturgeon and Salmond, her mentor and direct predecessor as Scotland’s first minister — a dispute so bitter that it could wreck Sturgeon’s career and set back the cause of Scottish independence to which both politicians devoted their lives.

Salmond spotted Sturgeon’s talent as a student politician and made her his deputy in 2004, a position in which she served for a decade before assuming the top job when her boss quit after Scots voted against independence in a 2014 referendum.

But the rupture between the two biggest figures in Scottish politics, with its almost Shakespearean claims of conspiracy and betrayal, comes just as the prospects for Scottish independence have begun to shine brightly once again because of Brexit, which is highly unpopular in Scotland.

The dispute revolves around an internal investigation in 2018 of two complaints against Salmond dating from 2013. Salmond, arguing that the inquiry process was flawed, took the Scottish government to court and won, with Scottish taxpayers paying his legal fees of more than 500,000 pounds. When the police later took up a criminal case against him, Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges including one of attempted rape.

Now determined to salvage his reputation, Salmond argues that those close to Sturgeon had conspired against him to prevent his return to politics after he lost his seat in the British Parliament in 2017 — and were even willing to see him jailed. Last week he also said that Scotland’s political leadership and institutions had failed under his successor, a claim that seemed to undermine the case for independence.

But more dangerous for Sturgeon are allegations that she misled the Scottish Parliament over what she knew and when, and over how she handled the sexual harassment complaints.

Sturgeon faces two inquiries and, if she is judged clearly to have lied, she would be expected to quit under the nation’s strict ministerial rules. Even if she survives, as many believe she will, the timing is terrible, coming before elections to the Scottish Parliament in May.

In that vote, Sturgeon hopes for gains for her party that she can use to justify holding a second referendum on Scottish independence.

But instead of campaigning, Sturgeon was Wednesday battling to save her job with a fluent performance, albeit without satisfying her critics.

In occasionally spiky exchanges, Sturgeon presented her actions as those of a politician torn between personal loyalty to her mentor and a stronger determination not to tolerate sexual harassment.

“As first minister, I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and his connections to get what he wants,” she said.

As for the claims against her, Sturgeon said that she had “searched my soul on all of this many, many, times over” but added that “in one of the most invidious personal and political situations I have ever faced, I believe I acted properly and appropriately and that overall I made the best judgments I could.”

Sturgeon acknowledged mistakes in the 2018 investigation and apologized to the two complainants.

But she has made errors of her own since then. Sturgeon initially said she first heard about the allegations against Salmond on April 2, 2018, during a meeting with him at her home, but later admitted that she had been given some earlier warning by his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, on March 29.

On Wednesday, Sturgeon said that she had gleaned only a vague understanding of what was at stake during the March 29 meeting and that learning about the accusations in detail on April 2 was “a moment in my life that I will never forget.”

She also denied claims that she offered to mediate between her predecessor — a man she said she had revered since the age of 20 — and the women who complained against him.

And Sturgeon rejected allegations that the names of the accusers were given to Salmond by government officials — something that would have been a serious breach of the rules.

Instead, she argued that Salmond knew the identity of one of the women because he had apologized to her, and worked out the other from his own research.

She also rejected a claim that, when Salmond took the government to court, she had continued to fight a losing case against the advice of lawyers. Sturgeon argued that the legal advice was ambivalent enough to justify her decision to continue battling Salmond in the courts for several weeks before the Scottish government conceded.

After all was said and done, there was nothing left for Sturgeon to do or say except wait for the verdict of the two inquiries that will likely determine her fate.

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