THE SNP has hired one of Scotland’s biggest law firms to deal with the Holyrood inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair, the Herald can reveal.

The party has engaged Shepherd & Wedderburn after MSPs demanded more evidence from Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, party chief executive Peter Murrell.

It is understood the firm wrote to the inquiry this week on behalf of the SNP raising objections to some of its requests to Mr Murrell.

This was in spite of Ms Sturgeon reassuring Holyrood on Thursday that her party would “put forward answers” to the inquiry’s questions and “continue to cooperate fully”.

The First Minister endured one of her most uncomfortable FMQs in months yesterday as she was grilled about her government’s cooperation with the inquiry and her husband’s role.

Holyrood Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused the First Minister of a “shabby abuse of power” by needlessly withholding evidence.

The accusation came just two days after the inquiry’s convener, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, said the investigation had become “completely frustrated” by high-level “obstruction”.

Ms Sturgeon denied obstructing the inquiry, and said it was “outrageous” that she was being accused of not answering questions when she had submitted “substantial written evidence” two months ago which was yet to be published.

READ MORE: Salmond inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon's husband Peter Murrell under fire for 'obstruction'

She also said she had yet to be called to give oral evidence, and offered to appear in person before the inquiry whenever it wanted.

However in tense exchanges, she refused to answer questions from Ms Davidson about whether her husband had urged police and prosecution action against Mr Salmond.

Leaked WhatsApp messages sent to the inquiry suggest that in January 2019 Mr Murrell told SNP colleagues it was a “good time to be pressurising” police and “the more fronts he [Mr Salmond] is having to firefight on the better for all complainers”.

At the time, Mr Salmond has just won a civil legal action against Ms Sturgeon’s government, then been charged with sexual assault - he would later be acquitted on all counts at trial.

The messages are regarded by Mr Salmond’s supporters as evidence that there was a high-level plot within the SNP to stop the former first minister making a political comeback and rivalling his estranged successor.

Asked directly if the WhatsApp messages were genuine, Ms Sturgeon deflected by saying the leak was the subject of a police inquiry, then said her husband ought to be quizzed instead.

She said: “I don’t think it is reasonable for me to be asked questions about things that other people might or might not have done. Call the people who the messages are purported to come from and ask them the questions. Call me and I will answer for myself.”

READ MORE: Alex Salmond affair: Nicola Sturgeon grilled over husband Peter Murrell's role at FMQs

The cross-party committee of inquiry is looking at how the Scottish Government botched an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018.

Mr Salmond had the exercise set aside in a judicial review at the Court of Session, forcing ministers to admit it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.

The collapse of the Government’s case in January 2019 left taxpayers with a £512,250 bill for Mr Salmond’s costs, and the Holyrood inquiry is investigating what happened.

On 17 January 2019, Ms Sturgeon gave an undertaking to parliament to “provide whatever material” the inquiry requested, adding: “My commitment is that the Government and I will cooperate fully with it.”

However her officials and ministers have since tried to block witnesses and withheld swathes of evidence, citing “legal privilege” despite waiving it for three judge-led inquiries.

Ms Davidson asked what had caused Ms Sturgeon to break her word.

Ms Sturgeon said evidence had only been withheld for legal reasons.

“As I understand it the only material that hasn’t been provided is material where there are legal reasons why it cannot be provided, including the issue of legal privilege,” she said.

She said more than 1,000 pages of material had been made available and officials had given more than 10 hours of oral evidence.

The government also intended to initiate legal proceedings to potentially make more material available, she said.

“The idea that the SNP or the Scottish Government is trying to obstruct this committee bears no scrutiny whatsoever,” she added, to mocking jeers from opposition MSPs.

Mr Murrell has been in the inquiry’s cross-hairs since he submitted written evidence, in his own name rather than via lawyers, in August.

In it, he said he was “unaware” of ministers using SNP communications for official business, despite widespread publicity about it taking place.

During last year’s SNP conference it emerged that Government officials were told in 2015 that the First Minister would only use her personal SNP account, not her Government one.

Four other SNP cabinet secretaries and one minister were also confirmed to have sent material to the government from their personal accounts.

The committee wrote back to Mr Murrell asking him to check again if the SNP held communications related to the misconduct complaints against Mr Salmond.

This included “emails, minutes, notes, texts, papers and WhatsApp messages from all levels of the SNP.”

Rather than Mr Murrell replying in person, the inquiry received the letter from Shepherd & Wedderburn, the largest law firm in the UK to be headquartered in Scotland.

Mr Salmond has also hired a law firm, Levy & McRae, to represent him.

The SNP said last night: “Mr Murrell has been asked to submit further evidence by [Friday] and he will do so.”