Nicola Sturgeon called on disgraced MSP Mark McDonald to quit Holyrood last night after investigators found he had “exploited” his power and caused “distress” to women.
The first minister urged her former early years minister to ask the constituents of Aberdeen Donside to deliver their verdict on his future.
The intervention came during a dramatic day in which Mr McDonald announced he had resigned from the SNP but intended to stay on as an independent MSP.
The 37-year-old’s statement was made less than 24 hours after he heard that a probe into his conduct had ruled that his inappropriate behaviour had been “deliberate in nature”.
Having spoken to 18 witnesses following complaints from three women, the SNP’s private investigators concluded that he had sent “inappropriate and unwanted text and social media messages” and he was responsible for “unwanted attention causing distress”.
It was also found that the behaviour was “persistent” and “over an extended period of time”, and that Mr McDonald had been “exploiting his position of power”.
And it emerged that there was a further allegation of “inappropriate physical contact during a social event”, but the investigators were not able to reach a verdict on it.
Ms Sturgeon had initially backed Mr McDonald to stay on as an MSP when he quit the Scottish Government in November.
But last night she told the BBC: “He was elected as an SNP MSP. If his behaviour is such that he himself considers he cannot continue as an SNP MSP, then it would be appropriate to give his constituents the opportunity to elect a new MSP.”
Mr McDonald had earlier accepted his behaviour had caused “hurt and offence” to two women and offered them a “public and unreserved apology”.
While the former minister said he was resigning from the SNP with immediate effect, he confirmed he intended to stay on as an MSP for Aberdeen Donside, which he first won in a by-election in 2013 following the death of Brian Adam.
Having been absent from the Scottish Parliament since the allegations against him were first made in November, he said he planned to return to Holyrood next week as an independent.
In a statement at The Dunavon Hotel in Dyce, Mr McDonald said: “While at no stage was my behaviour in any way physically abusive, and while it was certainly not my intention to cause any upset, discomfort or offence to those concerned, it is clear through the concerns highlighted in the report that I have done so.
“That is something which I deeply regret. I would like to take the opportunity here and now to offer a public and unreserved apology to those individuals for the hurt and offence that I have caused them.”
An party spokesman said the SNP group had been due to consider disciplinary action against Mr McDonald, adding: “Investigators concluded that Mr McDonald had been deliberate in his actions, and should have been aware that it was not appropriate for an individual in his position to be behaving in such a manner.”
Conservative MSP Alexander Burnett said: “Many people will rightly be questioning why Mark McDonald thinks that his behaviour was bad enough to resign from the SNP, but not to resign from the Scottish Parliament.
“He is clearly prioritising the reputation of the SNP over that of Holyrood.”
Labour’s Rhoda Grant said: “Mark McDonald decided his conduct was not fit for a minister or an SNP MSP – but somehow it is acceptable for an MSP without party affiliation.
“People in Aberdeen Donside will rightly question that.”
Mark McDonald’s rapid rise through the ranks of the SNP has, in the end, been eclipsed by his even more dramatic demise.
Having become a leading councillor in Aberdeen at 27 and a Scottish Government minister at 35, he had been tipped by many for one of the top jobs at Holyrood.
But his ascent was cut short in November when he quit as early years minister following a complaint about his conduct.
Backed initially by Nicola Sturgeon, he hoped his resignation would draw a line under the controversy, but instead more women came forward with fresh allegations in the following weeks.
Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, the 37-year-old must have been clinging onto some shred of hope that his career in the party could still be salvaged, otherwise he would not have waited four months to jump before he was pushed.
Perhaps he could not see the writing on the wall because the SNP and politics had been at the centre of his world for almost his entire adult life, not to mention the £62,000 salary that goes with being an MSP.
But his forlorn ambition to attempt to rebuild relations in the party appears to have evaporated completely on Monday afternoon as he read the scathing findings of an SNP-ordered investigation into his conduct.
Mr McDonald had already misjudged the seriousness of his predicament when he resigned as a minister by downplaying his actions as having only been “considered to be inappropriate”, and expressing hope to one day serve in government again.
Many, including some constituents, his former boss Ms Sturgeon and, potentially, the victims of his harassment, believe he made the wrong call again yesterday by insisting he could remain as an independent MSP.
With his career in tatters, Mr McDonald will know that he will now face intense pressure to resign for a third time in just a few months by quitting his seat.
And if so, he will know that he was the architect of his own downfall.