HE’S not going to go away. Anyone who thought that, after being cleared of sexual allegations, Alex Salmond was going to slouch off into obscure retirement doesn’t know the man. He’s unstoppable – like The Equaliser.

Nicola Sturgeon must realise this. She worked with the former SNP leader for 20-odd years. He is not going to be written out of history by a claque of SNP minions.

Mr Salmond retains wide respect amongst an SNP rank-and-file disillusioned with progress to independence. The press may loathe him, but many in the wider independence movement see Alex Salmond as the keeper of the flame. Panelbase recorded last month that 45% of Yes voters would probably or definitely support a Salmond-led party.

The former Scottish Socialist Party leader, Tommy Sheridan, recently of All Under One Banner, has said that he would step aside if Salmond were to offer to lead an Independence Party in May. It would likely clean up on list votes.

Ms Sturgeon should seek discreet accommodation with Mr Salmond this summer, before the parliamentary inquiry into her conduct rips her government apart.

It’s a tough ask. But it really shouldn’t be.

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As a lawyer, Nicola Sturgeon knows that Salmond has been cleared. There is no legal stain on his character, despite determined efforts by some newspaper columnists to suggest otherwise.

She insists she took no active role in the torrid affair. But the forthcoming inquiry and Salmond’s book will change all that. Jim Sillars says it’ll be a “volcanic eruption” under the FM.

Reconciliation might lead to the resignation of a few of her advisers and civil servants. But they should surely have gone already given the magnitude of the Scottish Government’s admitted misconduct. Ms Sturgeon’s former top adviser of 10 years, Noel Dolan, has called publicly for her senior civil servant, Leslie Evans, to resign.

Ms Evans was responsible for the new civil service disciplinary process that the Court of Session ruled was “unlawful, unfair and...biased” The botched code was devised by Ms Evans at the end of 2017 to deal with what was said to be an epidemic of sex crime in Holyrood. Salmond was the only person apprehended by this disreputable dragnet. The Scottish Government had to pay him £512,000 of public money for his trouble.

It was only then that the police became involved. Following new accusations of sexual assault and attempted rape, mainly from anonymous SNP figures, Police Scotland launched one of its biggest ever criminal investigations – 400 interviews at a cost well in excess of the Salmond payout.

Yet a female-dominated jury threw out all 13 charges in March. It was an abject humiliation for the Crown Office which ordered the prosecution and Police Scotland which led the evidence, such as it was.

But the First Minister can still insist that she had no direct responsibility for this legal farrago – on a par with the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into paedophilia in Westminster, (which are least didn’t come to trial).

But that’s not her problem. What Nicola Sturgeon needs to avoid is a split in the party. Indeed she can hardly avoid it because it is already there.

Outspoken critics, like the former SNP MP for East Lothian, George Kerevan, and the former Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, have blown the vow of silence that used to apply to senior members of the SNP.

Mr Kerevan says that Nicola Sturgeon has become an apologist for capitalist corporations and banks. Mr MacAskill has spoken favourably of the recently-former Alliance For Independence that intends to stand candidates in list seats at the next Holyrood elections. This has been forcefully rejected by the Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

A proxy war has broken out in candidate selection for the Edinburgh Central constituency between the former SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, and the Salmond ally Jo Cherry QC MP, who welcomed his acquittal.

Mr Salmond has had no direct involvement in this and denies any proxy campaigns on his behalf. He has made clear he does not intend to stand against the SNP.

However, we’ve been here before. Before his dramatic comeback as leader in 2004 Salmond insisted: “If nominated I’ll decline; if elected I’ll resign”. That didn’t last long.

Salmond is not a particularly ideological politician, nor does he bear grudges – at least not for long. But he does like to win. It is his compulsion.

He was after all the man who led the SNP to its first election victory, and then a landslide in 2011 which triggered the first independence referendum. It might be thought that his acquittal is his greatest victory yet.

But he can’t stop. He wants his party back. He wants to be restored to the nationalist pantheon.

There have been signs that Nicola Sturgeon is thinking about life after politics. She said as much in her 50th birthday interview. There is no life for Salmond outside politics and he is as yet a relatively young politician at 66. America is likely to elect a 78-year-old as president in November.

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It might seem mad to think Salmond could make a political comeback. All those appalling things said about him during his trial are but a click away. But Salmond knows how most Scots feel about justice. For many, he will have risen in their estimation precisely because he was wrongly accused. That he was exonerated by a jury of their peers counts for a great deal in a law-biding country.

It’s time to mend fences. Having the former leader on-side would prevent a focus of opposition emerging outside Parliament. Just read some of the furious, indeed unprintable, commentary on Sturgeon’s leadership by prominent Yes figures like the director of Common Weal Robin McAlpine.

Mr Salmond will reject all calls to stand against the SNP – until he doesn’t.

The First Minister may not like her predecessor but she got on with him on the past. Perhaps she could invite Mr Salmond to become an independent nationalist MSP, rather like like the late Margo MacDonald.

But time is running out. When the parliamentary inquiry begins on 18th August, much will spill into the public domain. Nicola Sturgeon will discover she has fewer allies than she thinks – and the most formidable foe in Scottish politics.

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