TWO former cabinet ministers who served under Alex Salmond have rallied to his aid, adding to the strain on Nicola Sturgeon and exposing the internal divisions in the SNP.

Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill claimed a puritanical inner circle were “driving out” anyone seen as a threat to the First Minister.

Mr MacAskill, a frequent critic of the running of the SNP under Ms Sturgeon’s husband, chief executive Peter Murrell, attacked a misguided “coterie” around the party leader.

Writing in the Scotsman, he said: “Not one blemish must be allowed to be cast upon the party leader and First Minister.

“She is to be whiter than white and the SNP purer than the driven snow. Misconduct will not be tolerated and any who might taint her are to be driven out.”

He said Mark McDonald, the former childcare minister who quit over a lewd text message in 2017 and is now an Independent MSP, had been thrown “to the wolves” by the SNP.

He said a “stupid laddie” had been treated like “some Scottish Hannibal Lecter”.

He claimed Mr Salmond had been subjected to an internal SNP inquiry - a claim the party furiously denied - and former staff approached about him.

“Some appear to have acted with no consideration for the rights of others and may even have carried out actions that were prejudicial and unfair.”

Former Health Secretary Alex Neil called for a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the sexual misconduct claims against Mr Salmond.

Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans said on Tuesday an internal inquiry into the failings behind the botched probe.

However Mr Neil, a fierce inquisitor on Holyrood committees, told The Times the review “the review must be carried out externally and in public”.

He said: “If it is just an internal review there will be a perception of the civil service simply investigating themselves.

“I can’t see how that can have the confidence of the public when they made such a mess of this process already.”

Mr Salmond has called on Ms Evans to quit, while Ms Sturgeon has backed her.