Nicola Sturgeon says she would have resigned as first minister if it had been found she breached the ministerial code but vowed not to be “bullied out of office” ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections.
Ms Sturgeon faced being ousted from her role as MSPs voted on a motion of no confidence brought forward by the Scottish Conservatives, who claim she misled parliament and ignored legal advice over the Alex Salmond affair.
But the Tories were cut adrift from the rest of the opposition in Holyrood as MSPs voted by 65 votes to 31, with 27 abstentions, to defeat the motion.
Only the Conservatives, Liberal Democrat rebel Mike Rumbles and the leader of Reform UK Scotland, Michelle Ballantyne, a former Conservative MSP, voted in favour.
Ms Sturgeon accused the Tories of a “desperate attempt” to claim her scalp after they pushed on with the vote despite James Hamilton, the independent adviser on the ministerial code, clearing her on Monday of any breach of the rules.
“Had Mr Hamilton’s report gone the other way, I would have accepted it,” she said.
“Had he found that I had breached the code in anything other than the most technical and immaterial of ways, I would have been standing here right now tendering my resignation.”
In a direct rebuke to her political rivals, Ms Sturgeon said: “If you think you can bully me out of office, you are mistaken and you misjudge me. If you want to remove me as first minister, do it in an election.”
The SNP leader said the vote, which she described as a “desperate political stunt”, shows that the Conservatives have “no confidence whatsoever in your ability to do so, because you have nothing positive to offer the Scottish people”.
‘Nicola Sturgeon misled this parliament’
The motion of no confidence was brought forward by the Tories after a separate Holyrood inquiry concluded Ms Sturgeon misled parliament and gave an “inaccurate account” of what happened at a meeting with Mr Salmond in April 2018.
The fall out from the committee, which was set up to look into the botched handling of harassment complaints against Mr Salmond, led to only the sixth vote of no confidence in 22 years of devolution – and the first involving a sitting first minister.
Speaking during an often fiery debate, Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson said no leader who truly wanted to live up to the ideals of the parliament would feel able to continue in post after being found to have misled it.
“After all that evidence-gathering and deliberation, the committee found that Nicola Sturgeon misled this parliament, nothing can erase that fact, however inconvenient it is to the first minister and her supporters,” Ms Davidson said.
“How can parliament have confidence in the words of a first minister when those words have been found to be false? The honourable thing would be to resign. Whether the first minister has that sense of honour is now between her and her conscience.”
‘A day of shame’
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, whose party abstained in the vote, took aim at both the Scottish Government, for failing Mr Salmond’s complainants, and the Tories, who he accused of a “futile and vain pursuit of a cheap political scalp”.
“A failing government on one hand; a game-playing opposition on the other. Our politics must be better than this,” he said. “Our people deserve better than this.”
Hitting out a a “day of shame for our parliament”, the Labour leader added: “The Conservatives have shown themselves as only interested in removing Nicola Sturgeon from office, rather than the facts of this terrible series of events.
“They have undermined the integrity of the independent investigator.
“Yet even the most ardent SNP supporter must recognise the women who complained were let down by the Government and that half a million pounds was wasted defending the indefensible in court.”
Mr Hamilton’s report states the claim that a complainer’s name was revealed to Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff by a member of Ms Sturgeon’s staff is “credible”.
‘They should just go’
The Scottish Greens, who hold the balance of power at Holyrood, had already confirmed they would not back the vote of no confidence following the publication of Mr Hamilton’s report.
Co-leader Patrick Harvie said members of the Holyrood committee had “pre-judged the evidence, called for resignations before listening to it, betrayed the original complainers in the sexual harassment case, and leaked their own conclusions to the media”.
He said any MSP found to have leaked the findings of the report or the testimony of complainers from a private session should not be allowed to stand in May’s election.
“They have shown contempt for the serious issue of sexual harassment,” he said. “They have shown contempt for their witnesses, they have shown contempt for the rules of this Parliament.
“And, having failed in their attempt to drag Scottish politics down to their level, they should just go.”
The Liberal Democrats abstained – with the exception of North East MSP Mike Rumbles – but leader Willie Rennie hit out at “ugly” politics, noting the “incendiary language, leaking private testimony of women and cruel celebration in the midst of this tragedy.”
“The debate in parliament must not be the end of this,” he said. “We need to understand how the complaints system will change and who will be held responsible for the significant errors made. This cannot be allowed to happen again.”