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Nicola Sturgeon faces critical week as ‘perfect storm’ of controversies reach a climax

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to update MSPs on any changes to the Covid-19 restrictions in Scotland. Picture date: Tuesday March 16, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story SCOTLAND Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire

Reports into the first minister’s conduct, her government’s botched handling of sexual harassment complaints, and a looming vote of no-confidence could potentially spell the end of Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office, but allies insist the wagons aren’t circling just yet.

Film buffs will tell you the best thrillers leave the climax of the action until the final scenes, as audiences hold their collective breaths while plot points, carefully woven together, play out in the movie’s denouement, and the protagonists’ fates are determined.

And so it is in the febrile world of Scottish politics, as three separate but entangled strands of an ongoing – some might say dogged – story draw to a close.

An independent inquiry conducted by respected Irish prosecutor James Hamilton QC could be the first to be made public, potentially as early as Monday. This probe is looking specifically at whether Ms Sturgeon lied to parliament, and broke the ministerial code of conduct by not reporting meetings she had with Mr Salmond when allegations about his conduct towards a number of women were first emerging.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have said Ms Sturgeon must resign if she’s found to have broken the ministerial code, but senior Scottish Government ministers have refused to be drawn on whether they think she should go if the Hamilton inquiry is critical of her actions – with one possible line of defence in the works that there’s a ‘sliding scale of severity’ when it comes to the code of conduct, and some infractions should be considered less serious than others.

Leaked inquiry report due on Tuesday

While the independent James Hamilton inquiry has been conducted largely out of public sight, a separate Holyrood inquiry has played out to audiences on television as first Mr Salmond and then Ms Sturgeon gave hours of testimony about her government’s botched handling of the investigation into allegations against him.

The inquiry was set up to look specifically at the mishandled complaints process, after a judicial review found it had been unlawful and tainted by apparent bias.

Ahead of the report’s publication on Tuesday some key excerpts were leaked much to the consternation of the SNP. The leaked paragraphs appear to show a 5-4 conclusion along party lines that Ms Sturgeon mislead the committee. That means the Conservative, Labour, an Independent and Liberal Democrat committee members voted against the first minister, while her own party’s MSPs sided with her.

If the leaked findings are confirmed in the final report they appear to show a potential  breach of the ministerial code, but stop short of the threshold for knowingly breaching the rules.

A spokesperson for the First Minister declared Ms Sturgeon “told the truth to the committee” and condemned “partisan and selective briefing” of inquiry business.

The Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.

Vote of no-confidence looming

The third part of the ‘perfect storm’ heading in Ms Sturgeon’s direction this week is a planned no-confidence vote being brought by the Conservatives against her.

While the SNP has dismissed the move as political grandstanding, prejudging the outcomes of the inquiries without having all the facts, the Scottish Conservatives have bet it all on one final push to topple the first minister – presuming the inquiries come out strongly against her.

“The other parties need to show that they have the stomach to stand up to this SNP Government like we do” Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross said recently.

A vote of no confidence needs to take place, he added, to “give Parliament the opportunity to have its say on the first minister’s conduct”.

The Scottish Greens could well play a decisive role in deciding the first minister’s fate, saying they’ll wait until the reports are published before coming to any decisions about how to cast their lots in the no-confidence vote.

Adam Tomkins MSP

Sharpened knives, but no circled wagons

That the Scottish Conservatives see this week as their best and perhaps only chance to deal a mortal blow to Nicola Sturgeon, seriously damage the SNP and hurt the independence movement overall is not without irony – since they haven’t been able to achieve any of that at the ballot box.

Still, senior Scottish Tories continue to ratchet up the rhetoric with MSP Adam Tomkins saying on Sunday the evidence was “overwhelming” that the first minister had “mislead parliament on numerous occasions.”

“Throughout this entire process the SNP has been, from top to bottom, caught in a culture of its own making of sleaze and conspiracy and cover-up” Mr Tomkins told BBC Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon’s allies say they’re dismayed and disappointed about how the Holyrood committee process has been politicised, but “hope the Hamilton report will clear the atmosphere.”

“There’s a feeling that we are under attack which is grim, every issue is being weaponised in the fight to save the union. Personal attacks obviously, but it extends beyond the SNP to the parliament & Scottish institutions” says one Scottish Government minister, who wished to remain anonymous.

“Selective leaking to gain control of the narrative before the (Holyrood inquiry) report is published has certainly been successful for the opposition so far. This is toxic and grim and the women are completely lost in it”

“My sense is that colleagues are confident in the first minister’s testimony and there are no wagons circling.”