Nicola Sturgeon’s failure to remember a meeting at which she was told about sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond has been branded “absurd”.
At First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon was told her claim that she had forgotten about the meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff was “beyond belief”.
Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson accused the SNP of taking the public “for fools” and asked the first minister if she thought there should be a judicial inquiry into “the scandal”.
Ms Davidson went on the attack shortly after the publication of a letter from Mr Salmond’s lawyer, which accused Ms Sturgeon’s government of “trying to malign” the former first minister’s reputation.
Ms Sturgeon found herself under fire at Holyrood the day after she had submitted evidence to the Holyrood inquiry examining the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment claims against Mr Salmond.
In a 15-page document given to the inquiry, the first minister said she forgot about a meeting she had with Mr Salmond’s former aide, Geoff Aberdein, on March 29, a few days before Mr Salmond came to her house on April 2 to tell her about the allegations made against him.
I sat in the dining room of my own home while he showed me what he was accused of. I was pretty shocked and upset at the time, and that is what is seared on my memory.”
Nicola Sturgeon on a visit Alex Salmond made to her home
In her evidence, Ms Sturgeon said she thought the meeting with Mr Aberdein did “cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature”.
The fact that that meeting took place came to light in Mr Salmond’s criminal trial earlier this year, when the former SNP leader was cleared of all sexual assault charges.
Ms Sturgeon failed to mention the meeting when she informed MSPs in January last year about various meetings with Mr Salmond and what she knew about the claims against him – an omission that has led to claims she misled parliament.
At First Minister’s Questions, Ms Davidson said Ms Sturgeon’s remark that she had forgotten about the March 29 meeting, which had been on a “busy” parliamentary day that included First Minister’s Questions, was “beyond belief”.
I have spent enough time sparring with her here to know that her powers of recall are in good order… Why did the First Minister mislead parliament by omitting the fact that the meeting ever happened?”
Ruth Davidson quizzes Nicola Sturgeon
Ms Davidson said: “I have looked back at that First Minister’s question time, when we ended up talking about the Arctic strategy, which is not something to cause anyone to forget sexual assault allegations. That does not even bear the lightest scrutiny — it is beyond belief.
“An account of that meeting that the First Minister had with Mr Salmond’s chief of staff has been published. I will read it out. ‘The conversation was around the fact of the complaints, without discussing the specifics of them. There was discussion about the investigation, the process of it, the fact it was a civil service investigation being conducted by civil servants’.
“I ask again: does a meeting that involves a discussion of the investigation, the process of that investigation, the civil service side of it and the fact of the complaints against a former First Minister sound to the current First Minister like the kind of thing that she would not remember?”
Ms Davidson went on to say Ms Sturgeon’s position was “absurd”.
“I have spent enough time sparring with her here to know that her powers of recall are in good order,” Ms Davidson said.
“Leaving aside the question of precisely who is supposed to have reminded her of a two-person meeting, we have to ask why. Why did the First Minister mislead parliament by omitting the fact that the meeting ever happened?”
‘I sat in the dining room…’
Ms Sturgeon said she did remember the “complaints of sexual misconduct” when the detail of them was given to her by Mr Salmond when he was in her Glasgow family home a few days later.
“I sat in the dining room of my own home while he showed me what he was accused of. I was pretty shocked and upset at the time, and that is what is seared on my memory,” Ms Sturgeon said.
Earlier, the first minister admitted people might “raise an eyebrow” that she forgot about the meeting with Mr Aberdein, but she insisted she had “nothing to hide” in relation to how she had acted.
Ms Sturgeon thought “most reasonable people” would understand that the meeting that was “seared” in her memory was the one with Mr Salmond.
“Forgive me if that has somehow overwritten in my mind a much more fleeting, opportunistic meeting that took place a few days earlier, that is just how it is,” the first minister said.
Ms Davidson went on to ask the First Minister if she believed a judge-led inquiry should be launched to look into the handling of the complaints, an idea put forward by SNP MSP Alex Neil.
The First Minister said: “There is a parliamentary inquiry under way that I’ve given evidence to and that I will sit in front of and give evidence to orally, I will do it under oath.
“I’ve got nothing to hide in all of this. I’ve had two years or more of people making accusations about my conduct.
“It’s not my conduct that sparked off this, I’ve tried to act in the proper way – if I’ve made mistakes along the way then I will say that and people can make their judgments.
“But I have tried to do the right thing and I will continue to try to do the right thing.”
A letter from Alex Salmond’s lawyer
A couple of hours before Ms Sturgeon appeared at First Minister’s Questions, a letter from Mr Salmond’s lawyer, David McKie of Levy McRae, was published by the Salmond inquiry.
The letter accused the Scottish Government of trying to undermine Mr Salmond’s successful legal action against it by putting material into the public domain.
The Holyrood inquiry was launched after Mr Salmond successfully challenged the Scottish Government in the courts over the way it had conducted its internal investigation into the claims made against him.
The court concluded the Scottish Government’s process was unlawful and tainted with apparent bias.
Mr McKie’s letter said any attempt to share or publish documents “reduced by the Court of Session as unlawful” would “defeat entirely the purpose and effect of the court action successfully undertaken by our client”.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is taking a range of action, including going to court, to be able to give the committee as much documentation as possible.”