SOME conversations stand out. It may be a significant disclosure – or a remark which subsequently acquires importance. It may be a single, startling phrase, recollected in tranquillity.

To be frank, most chats are not of that nature. Rather, they are ephemeral, transient. All week, however, one past conversation has come, unbidden, to my mind. This dialogue took place after Alex Salmond was charged with a range of sexual offences, but before he was cleared in court. Before, indeed, his trial had opened.

My interlocutor said calmly: “Alex is entirely confident he will be acquitted. And then watch out.” The consequence, according to my contact, was that there would be significant repercussions for those who had instigated the accusations. The talk, even then, was of conspiracy.

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From such soothsaying, we arrive at the moment yesterday when the former SNP leader and First Minister gave evidence in the Parliament he once dominated, to the possible detriment of senior figures in the party he once led.

Mr Salmond protested that the Crown Office had intervened to ask for his evidence to be redacted, hindering efforts to get at the truth. Further, he said that Scotland had been let down by “many and obvious” failures of leadership in the Scottish Government.

He said that he had suffered “hurt and shock” over three years – and objected that his successor had appeared to him to question the will of the jury in his trial.

That successor is Nicola Sturgeon. She fully shares his zeal for independence. They are as one on most contemporary political issues, although Ms Sturgeon is customarily cautious while Mr Salmond relies a little more upon instinct.

Nicola Sturgeon was Alex Salmond’s protegée, his colleague in party, Parliament and government – and, yes, his close friend.

No more. Never glad, confident morning again. Ms Sturgeon’s erstwhile leader is now decidedly lost to her.

Strictly speaking, Alex Salmond did not explicitly include Ms Sturgeon in his final written submission to the committee investigating the handling by the Scottish Government of harassment complaints against him.

Yet look at the list of those he accused of mounting “a malicious and concerted attempt” to damage his reputation and remove him from public life. They include Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff. Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, who is chief executive of the SNP.

Skip subtlety. This amounts to a sustained onslaught against Nicola Sturgeon by her predecessor, her mentor.

Certainly, Opposition leaders see it that way. They make no distinction between the First Minister and her advisers. Ruth Davidson for the Conservatives accused Ms Sturgeon of a cover up. For Labour, Jackie Baillie said there was “something rotten at the core of the SNP.”

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Nicola Sturgeon was ready for them. She knows this is toxic. She knows this is potentially damaging for her party and, by extension, for the cause of independence.

And so, in the chamber on Thursday, she opted for robust counter-attack, saying that talk of a cover up was a “litany of nonsense” while there was a complete lack of evidence to substantiate “deluded and dangerous” claims of a conspiracy against Mr Salmond.

It was rather, she said, about the “ego of one man”. Earlier in the week, she suggested that Mr Salmond occupied an “alternative reality” and counselled him to consider “issues in his own behaviour” instead.

Scarcely, then, an atmosphere of cordial coherence, with the Scottish Parliamentary elections just ten weeks away. I discussed this with senior SNP figures this week.

One offered the view that there would be casualties, perhaps in the party, perhaps in the civil service. It was, this observer suggested, “an outside chance” that Ms Sturgeon herself might have to stand down before the election, particularly if she is found, separately, to have broken the Ministerial code.

Another suggested that the affair, while bitter, had little consistent traction with the voters who were more concerned with Ms Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic. Yet another urged the party participants to recall their shared objective of independence, to reflect that “what happens in the next ten weeks will determine where Scotland is in ten years’ time”.

So where are we? Firstly, I do not see this as a civil war within the SNP. To me, that phrase involves substantial entrenched tribes, divided by ideology. There would be think tanks, policy papers, argument and counter-argument.

If anything, this is more vicious and more visceral. It is sibling conflict, among those who agree on other matters. It is a princely joust in an egalitarian party.

To be quite clear, though, Mr Salmond is not alone in his criticism of Team Sturgeon. And there are other factors at play.

There is a searing, persistent controversy over transgender policy. Some resent what they see as patrician behaviour among those close to the top. Above all, there is sporadic unease at progress towards independence.

Some complain that Ms Sturgeon lacks a tough, coherent policy for prising a further referendum from an obdurate Prime Minister.

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In response, Ms Sturgeon says that the only way to procure indyref2 is for the SNP to win sufficient support and seats. That, she says, would enable a legitimate, constitutional referendum, with a real outcome; not a gesture which would be ignored by international authorities.

Then there is the position of the Crown Office. Critics say they have gone beyond their powers in asking for Mr Salmond’s submission to Parliament to be redacted.

In response, it is argued that the Crown Office only acted to prevent a possible contempt of court, to protect the identities of women who had complained about Mr Salmond.

It is further argued that critics risk traducing the entire Scottish legal system, which dates back before the Union.

I put that to one critic of the SNP leadership. The answer? “I want independence but not if it involves a justice system like Belarus where politicians can manipulate the law.” For some, this is deep and intense.

But back to the duel. Alex Salmond says his challenge is justified by the grievous wrongs visited upon him. Nicola Sturgeon, who gives evidence next week, says any wounds he displays are self-inflicted. En garde.

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