Nicola Sturgeon is facing the worst crisis of her premiership as she stands accused of a shocking failure of judgment during the sexual misconduct probe into her predecessor.

The First Minister was savaged by opponents yesterday over a series of secret contacts with Alex Salmond while he was under investigation by her officials. 

Ms Sturgeon insisted she did not try to sway the probe into her mentor, but was criticised for continuing to hear his complaints about the process as he threatened legal action.

Opposition parties were last night in talks about establishing a 
Holyrood committee inquiry into the affair, something which could bog down the Government for months.

The First Minister is also under intense pressure to refer herself to outside ethics watchdogs after being accused of breaking the ministerial code by not reporting the discussions.

In a sign of the breakdown in relations between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, some of his supporters seemed to take delight in the current SNP leadership’s problems. 

“We’re watching astonished as they twist in the wind,” one source close to Mr Salmond said. One of Mr Salmond’s former Cabinet ministers also attacked the running of the SNP under Ms Sturgeon’s husband, the party chief executive Peter Murrell.

Kenny MacAskill said a puritanical clique around Ms Sturgeon was “driving out” people perceived as any kind of threat to her reputation.

Mr Salmond also added fuel to conspiracy theories about the misconduct probe.
In a message to supporters, he said: “Some people are clearly very anxious to remove me now as a political threat which is why this is probably not over.” 

Mr Salmond won a judicial review against the Government at the Court of Session on Tuesday after it admitted its investigation into him was fundamentally flawed.

It emerged the investigating officer appointed to examine two complaints of misconduct made last January had already been in prior contact with his accusers.

This rendered the process unlawful, procedurally unfair and “tainted by apparent bias”.

READ MORE: Analysis: Vengeful Alex Salmond is looking for blood 

The “botched mess”, as Mr Salmond described it, left taxpayers with a £500,000 legal bill.

Last night the former First Minister reported the government he once led to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office over apparent leaks about his case to the press.

It followed the government saying it could find no evidence of a data breach.

As Mr Salmond’s court win exposed raw divisions between the SNP’s past and present leaders, Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff was also dragged into the crisis.

The First Minister revealed Liz Lloyd, her closest political aide for the last four years, set up the crucial meeting at which Mr Salmond first told her he was under investigation.

Until then, and in line with the government procedure on harassment complaints against former ministers, Ms Sturgeon’s officials had kept her in the dark about the probe.

Ms Sturgeon said she met Mr Salmond at her Glasgow home on April 2 last year in her capacity as SNP leader, as “he wanted to come and tell me something I needed to know in my role as party leader”, and that Ms Lloyd was also present. 

She told MSPs: “Alex Salmond set out his concerns about the process. It was clear from what he told me then that he was considering a legal challenge.” 

However, despite the conversation veering onto a government matter, Ms Sturgeon did not tell her private office about the discussion, a potential breach of the ministerial code. 

Indeed, Ms Sturgeon did not tell the government’s top official about the contact for another two months, only writing a letter to Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans the day before she was due to meet Mr Salmond again, this time alone in Aberdeen.

Ms Sturgeon also had a third meeting alone with Mr Salmond in her Glasgow home in July, as well as phone calls in April and July.

Her spokesman said Mr Salmond raised the investigation every time, but Ms Sturgeon did not give her private office or Ms Evans notes on their discussions.

The issue dominated First Minister’s Questions, where Ms Sturgeon was accused of failing to apply basic common sense to the situation by cold-shouldering Mr Salmond after he first raise the highly sensitive matter.

Ms Sturgeon insisted she did not get involved in the investigation, had acted appropriately throughout, and had not breached the Scottish ministerial code.

She said she did not tell Ms Evans about Mr Salmond’s disclosure for two months because she did not want to give the impression of interference in the investigation.

However acting Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw told her: “In my book, meeting the subject of a complaint is getting involved.

“The obvious, common sense thing to have done after Alex Salmond advised her of the allegation on 2 April 2018 would have been to decline to meet him or speak with him on four separate occasions. 

“The First Minister said that the five conversations that she had with Mr Salmond about this matter ‘were not Government meetings’. 

“In other words, her position appears to be that a meeting between the First Minister of the Government and the former First Minister of the Government about a Government investigation involving two Government employees was not Government business. Really?” 

He added: “This whole sorry business simply doesn’t stack up. If the Government will not explain convincingly what has happened, I and others believe that the Parliament should be given the authority to do so. Will the First Minister agree today that her officials and ministers will provide evidence on this matter, because the public deserve to know?”

Ms Sturgeon said she would be “happy” to cooperate if the parliament had an inquiry.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said Ms Sturgeon’s calls and meetings with Mr Salmond while the investigation was ongoing were “a grave error of judgment”.

He also said it was a potential breach of Section 4.23 of the Scottish Ministerial Code which says that if ministers “find themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a party conference, social occasion or on holiday – any significant content (such as substantive issues relating to government decisions or contracts) should be passed back to their private offices as soon as possible after the event.”

Mr Leonard asked Ms Sturgeon, who polices the code in respect of other ministers, to refer herself to the two independent advisers who look at issues involving the First Minister.

These are former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini and former Director of Public Prosecutions at the Irish Office James Hamilton.

Mr Salmond was investigated six times under the code while FM and cleared each time.

However Ms Sturgeon has never been investigated under it.

She said she would “consider” the request, but no more than that. 

She said: “I acted appropriately. I accept that there will be others who think that I made wrong judgments along the way, and they are absolutely entitled to think that. However, I will stand by and defend the judgments that I made. I am absolutely adamant that I did not intervene in this process, as it would have been entirely inappropriate for me.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The First Minister said that she would consider any request made to make a referral to the panel of advisers on the ministerial code and the government would, as always, co-operate with any parliamentary inquiry. 

“In relation to this and in relation to any requests for documents the Scottish Government will take account of legal obligations – including to the court, the complainants, the ongoing police enquiry, the potential for further legal action by Alex Salmond and the prospect of a future investigation – in determining the most appropriate course of action.  

“In addition, the Scottish Government has given an undertaking to the court that the content of the investigation of the findings would not be made public as part of the settlement.”

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Mr Salmond is happy for us to confirm he has raised a concern with the ICO and we are currently making enquiries with the Scottish government.”

The government said it had instructed a “detailed review” into its handling of Mr Salmond’s data last August, the month the existence of the misconduct probe became public.

A spokesperson said: “We are satisfied that information relating to this case has been processed in accordance with our legal and information handling obligations, and that there is no evidence of any data breach. We are currently in the process of sharing this information with the Information Commissioner.”

A spokesperson for Ms Salmond said: “Our advice to the Government is that when they are in a hole they should try and stop digging.”

Did you enjoy this piece? Then read Tom Gordon's analysis on the fallout HERE