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Greens will save John Swinney in vote of no confidence

Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, is to survive a Conservative-led fight to topple him from government.

Scottish Green party MSPs confirmed they will not join other opposition parties in a vote of no confidence in Mr Swinney.

The Perthshire North MSP had been facing the showdown in a political row over access to government records on legal advice linked to the court battle with former leader Alex Salmond.

Scottish Conservatives complained parliament was not being given the full picture and threatened to push ahead with a vote of no confidence, which will still be held over 30 minutes on Wednesday afternoon.

Mr Swinney wrote again this week to MSPs on Holyrood’s harassment inquiry, which was set up to probe the handling of complaints against Mr Salmond. In the letter, he admitted no records could be found of meetings between Nicola Sturgeon, top civil servant Leslie Evans and government legal advisers over key dates relating to Mr Salmond’s judicial review of complaint handling.

John Swinney with Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood.

MSPs met on Tuesday to discuss the latest developments on legal advice – and on the timing of a motion of no confidence.

After the date was confirmed, Scottish Green party co-convener Patrick Harvie said he is defending the “integrity of the Scottish Parliament” against a “pathetic political game”.

‘Naked attempt’ to undermine Holyrood

Harvie said: “It’s clear from this naked attempt to undermine our democratic institutions and from the line of questioning from their committee members that the Scottish Conservatives have no interest in making sure women are supported coming forward with complaints in the future.

“For them, this vote of no confidence is a pathetic political game just weeks ahead of an election in which they have nothing positive to offer the people of Scotland.”

Email exchanges

The current First Minister and Leslie Evans, Scotland’s most senior civil servant, held meetings with external legal advisers about the judicial review on November 2 and November 13 2018, according to evidence provided to the committee.

Mr Swinney told the committee officials “have not identified any record of minutes having been prepared or previously held”.

He added: “Officials have identified a small number of contemporaneous email exchanges referencing these meetings.

“This includes exchanges following the meeting on November 2 and email ahead of the meeting on November 13 2018, attended by the First Minister and Permanent Secretary.

“These exchanges make clear that the focus of the meetings was on discussing and agreeing with external counsel adjustments to the pleadings for the judicial review.”

Mr Swinney said the government would “urgently” make checks on court orders and data compliance and then try to publish the email exchanges “as soon as possible this week”.

‘Everyone takes notes’

Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron.

When Mr Swinney first confirmed last Friday that no minutes could be found for the November meetings, Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said: “I’ve acted as counsel for the Scottish Government. At consultations, everyone takes notes.

“It is inconceivable these minutes don’t exist.”

The government’s lawyers had already warned ministers of difficulties with the case prior to the meetings, with papers showing on September 26 2018 senior and junior counsel advised of a “real risk that the court may be persuaded” by a legal challenge “attacking various aspects of the investigation process”.

By December 17, however, Roddy Dunlop QC and Solicitor Advocate Christine O’Neill said they were “firmly of the view that at least one of the challenges mounted by the petitioner (Mr Salmond) will be successful”.

They added that “we simply wish all concerned – and we include the First Minister in this – to be absolutely certain that they wish us to plough on regardless” with the defence of the case.

The Scottish Government conceded the case in January 2019, with the Court of Session ruling it had acted “unlawfully” in its handling of the complaints.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe.

Holyrood’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints had also asked Mr Swinney about any external legal advice received after the Lord Advocate wrote on December 31 2018 about conceding the case.

Mr Swinney said that although there had been “extensive engagement between counsel and Scottish Government lawyers” in early January 2019, there were no formal written notes.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The Deputy First Minister’s shabby treatment of parliament cannot be ignored.

“Ignoring votes, holding back papers and delaying the publication of documents until after the First Minister had given evidence and now failing to minute important meetings shows a fundamental disrespect for democracy.

“Anyone who values this parliament must vote to reprimand the Deputy First Minister’s behaviour.”