Nicola Sturgeon accused her political opponents of peddling “wild conspiracy theories” as she faced a grilling over her husband’s evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair.
Ms Sturgeon claimed Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson was trying to use SNP chief executive Peter Murrell as a “weapon” to damage her politically during a bruising session of first minister’s questions on Thursday.
Asked for a clear answer on whether she had discussed with Mr Murrell that Mr Salmond was being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct, Ms Sturgeon said she was first minister and not “the office gossip”.
Mr Murrell has been accused of undermining his wife’s written submission during his evidence on Tuesday and MSPs have demanded he be recalled to the inquiry, which is investigating the government’s botched probe into the complaints.
Mr Murrell appeared to contradict himself repeatedly as he appeared under oath and stated that Mr Salmond’s revelation that he was under investigation by Ms Sturgeon’s officials had made any further discussions “government business”.
He insisted the first minister had not spoken with him about the content of any of the meetings because it was a government matter rather than a party one.
However, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs in January last year she attended that meeting and two subsequent ones with Mr Salmond, none of which appear in her ministerial diary, as SNP leader, and it would have been wrong to meet as first minister.
Her opponents claim Mr Murrell’s testimony indicates she “misled Parliament and broke the ministerial code” – something that could be a resignation matter.
‘Contradictions and half answers’
During Thursday’s exchange, Ms Davidson asked whose version of events the public should believe and questioned the credibility of the first minister learning of a probe into her predecessor and not discussing it with her husband.
She said: “The first minister and the chief executive of the SNP are intelligent, experienced political operatives. On this one issue, why is it they can’t get their story straight?”
Ms Sturgeon said she had set out her position in written evidence to the committee and looked forward to appearing to answer any questions but stressed that Mr Murrell had “no role” in the matter.
She added: “Ms Davidson might want to attack my husband and use him as a weapon against me, people will draw their own conclusions about that. But it doesn’t change the basic fact of the matter that he had no role in these issues.”
The SNP leader’s former deputy, Angus Robertson, confirmed in newly published written evidence that he spoke to Mr Salmond about alleged “inappropriateness” towards female staff at Edinburgh Airport in 2009.
Speaking after first minister’s questions, Ms Davidson said Ms Sturgeon’s repeated references to her husband were a “transparent attempt at deflection and, frankly, beneath a woman of her professional standing”.
“Throughout this affair, a clear pattern has emerged of sharp brains suddenly turning blank, contradictions piling up and half answers having to be dragged out of people who should know better,” Ms Davidson said.
“It was perhaps unfortunate of Nicola Sturgeon to make reference to ‘office gossip’ on the day we find out her former deputy was first informed about allegations surrounding Alex Salmond as long as 11 years ago.”
Sturgeon slams ‘irresponsible’ claims
Meanwhile, the first minister warned coronavirus could “run out of control again” in Scotland this winter, stressing that the Scottish Government must take “real caution” when considering whether to loosen restrictions.
Ms Sturgeon has come in for fierce criticism for keeping Edinburgh under level three measures this week, the second-toughest level available in Scotland’s five-tier system.
But she accused Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard of being “irresponsible” for claiming that decisions on levels had been taken for political reasons – remarks which had sparked outrage from SNP MSPs.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie defended the right of parliamentarians to challenge any decision on levels as he raised the struggles of workers at the collapsed engineering firm BiFab.
He said: “The first minister boasted to the workers that she had saved their jobs but I suspect she won’t be back to hand out their P45s. Now they will only be able to watch as the wind farm is built off the coast of Fife.
“The government’s industrial strategy is failing just when workers need it most. So what is the new plan to revitalise our yards?
“And, please, do not tell me there is another working group – if the SNP’s working groups created work, we’d have full employment by now.”
‘We will continue to work’
Ms Sturgeon said it was because of action taken by her government that BiFab had not gone into administration three years earlier but stressed ministers have already reached the legal limit for support they can provide.
She said the Scottish Government would “continue to work to secure, if we possibly can, a future” for the yard but there were challenges around the supply chain, including negotiations with the UK Government.
The exchange came as Scotland recorded another 50 coronavirus deaths and 933 new cases. It takes the total number of people who have died after testing positive for coronavirus in the prior 28 days to 4,039.
Ms Sturgeon confirmed 5,330 Scots had been vaccinated for coronavirus over the previous two days.