NICOLA Sturgeon's claim to have forgotten about a life-changing meeting about sexual misconduct and Alex Salmond has been branded “beyond belief”.

Holyrood Tory leader Ruth Davidson said the First Minister’s position was “absurd” given her famous sharp memory, and accused the SNP of “taking people for fools”.

Ms Sturgeon insisted the meeting had slipped her mind, saying: “That is just how it is.”

She insisted she had "nothing to hide" from the inquiry and would "relish" giving oral evidence under oath when asked to do so.

She also attacked Ms Davidson for raising the issue at FMQs after five more Covid deaths were announced overnight, saying most people wanted to focus on the pandemic.

It was the second FMQs in a row at which Ms Davidson had challenged the First Minister over the Salmond affair, which is currently the subject of a cross-party Holyrood inquiry.

MSPs are looking at how the Scottish Government bungled a probe into claims of sexual misconduct made against Mr salmond in 2018, leading to him having the whole exercise set aside in a judicial review as “tainted by apparent bias” at a cost to taxpayers of £512,000.

Last week, Ms Davidson quizzed Ms Sturgeon about messages sent by her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

Today, the Tory leader pressed Ms Sturgeon over her own evidence, in which she claimed to have forgotten about the first meeting at which she learned of misconduct claims about Mr Salmond.

After Mr Salmond’s judicial review win, Ms Sturgeon had told MSPs about five meetings and calls with Mr Salmond while he was under investigation by her officials, starting with one at her Glasgow home on 2 April 2018 in which he laid out the claims he faced.

But Ms Sturgeon failed to mention that she was tipped off four days earlier, on 29 March 2018, by Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, in her Holyrood office.

That meeting only came to light at Mr Salmond’s separate criminal trial this year, and was only confirmed by the Governnment in August.

In her written evidence to the Holyrood inquiry, Ms Sturgeon said: “Mr Aberdein was in Parliament to see a former colleague and while there came to see me. 

“I had forgotten that this encounter had taken place until I was reminded of it in, I think, late January/early February 2019. 

“For context, I think the meeting took place not long after the weekly session of FMQs and in the midst of a busy day in which I would have been dealing with a multitude of other matters. 

"However, from what I recall, the discussion covered the fact that Alex Salmond wanted to see me urgently about a serious matter, and I think it did cover the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature. 

“The impression I had at this time was that Mr Salmond was in a state of considerable distress, and that he may be considering resigning his party membership.”

Ms Davidson asked Ms Sturgeon if it sounded “credible” to have forgotten a meeting at which she first learned of allegations of sexual misconduct being levelled against her “predecessor and mentor of two decades”?

The First Minister said: “I get why people will look at that and raise an eyebrow.”

But she explained it had been the later meeting, with Mr Salmond himself on 2 April 2018, that had stuck in her mind instead. 

She said: “That is what is seared in my memory and I think most reasonable people would understand that. If that has somehow over-written in my mind a much more fleeting, opportunistic meeting that took place a few days earlier, then that is just how how it is.”

She said anyone could read her “full and frank account” in her written evidence, which had been published on the Scottish Parliament’s website.

She added: “I look forward, if that is not an absurd description to use, to appearing before the committee and answering any questions that anybody has on whatever aspects of that evidence they want. I have not yet between invited to appear before the committee, and I hope that is sooner rather than later. 

“I’m being completely open about all of this, but in the meantime I hope people will also understand I have a really important job to do as well, which is to continue to lead this country as safely as I can through a global pandemic.”

Ms Davidson said she had read Ms Sturgeon’s evidence, and said her excuse about having a busy day did not square with the FMQs exchange between the two leaders that Thursday.

She said: “We ended up talking about the Arctic Strategy, which is not something to cause anyone to forget sexual assault allegations.

“This does not even bear the lightest scrutiny. It is beyond belief.” 

She also contrasted Ms Sturgeon’s account of the meeting with another published version.

She said: “Let me read it out. ‘The conversation was around the fact of the complaints without us discussing the specifics of them.’ 

“The account goes on: ‘There was discussion about the investigation, the process of it, the fact it was a civil servant investigation being conducted by civil servants.’

“So I ask again, does a meeting which involves discussion of the investigation, the process of that investigation, the civil service side of it, and the fact of the complaints against a former first minister sound, to this First Minister, like the kind of thing she wouldn’t remember?”

Ms Sturgeon said she did remember the complaints of sexual misconduct, but the detail was given to her four days later by Alex Salmond in her house.

She said: “I sat in the dining room of my own home while he showed me what he was accused of. I was pretty shocked and upset at that at the time and that is what is seared in my memory. Those are the facts. 

“Other people can decide to give their own evidence, I will give mine.

“I will sit before a committee, whenever it decides to call me, and I will give my account of everything that happened, on oath. I have got nothing to hide in all this.”

Ms Sturgeon also defended the Government’s investigation, while acknowledging it was flawed, saying it had been promoted by “serious complaints”.

She said: “Let us not forget the people who lie at the heart of this whole sorry saga.”

Ms Davidson said: “This is not a trivial matter. What lies at the heart of it is whether there was an abuse of power, which affects every citizen of this country. 

“I am afraid that the First Minister’s position is absurd. 

“I have spent enough time sparring with her here to know that her powers of recall are in good order. 

“Why did the First Minister mislead Parliament by omitting the fact that the meeting ever happened? 

“Why did it take a Government staffer being questioned under oath in a court of law for it to come out? 

“A meeting in her ministerial office about a former First Minister and a civil service investigation was never recorded and never minuted, and the ministerial code is clear that all such meetings that are conducted without an official present must be passed back for the facts to be recorded. 

“The First Minister’s defence is that she has only ever acted as head of the SNP.

“Is her sudden memory loss not because she did not want evidence of her involvement as First Minister to come to light?”

Ms Sturgeon said she was being accused of both conspiring against Mr Salmond and colluding with him, and denied there had been any abuse of power. 

“I understand why it may suit some people to say that this is all some great conspiracy, but I am not entirely sure why anybody still in possession of their critical faculties would see it as anything other than complaints being investigated and everybody trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstances.”

“I have nothing to hide on this - nothing whatsoever.” 

Ms Sturgeon then said she was open to scrutiny by the electorate as well as parliament.

“I know that Ruth Davidson does not like being reminded of this, but I am open to scrutiny not only by the Parliament but by the Scottish people, and, when I stand before them in the election next year, they can make their judgment on me and my conduct. 

“They will not get that opportunity with Ruth Davidson, because she will be away by then, in the House of Lords.”

Ms Davidson replied: “The Scottish National Party appears to be taking people for fools here. We have a chief executive of the SNP sending texts to colleagues, calling for pressure to be put on the police, and then saying that he did not mean it. 

“We have the First Minister attending meetings about the Salmond case, then omitting them from her diary and claiming that she had forgotten all about them. 

“And we have a Scottish Government wilfully obstructing an inquiry by the Parliament and attacking anyone who points that out.”

She then asked Ms Sturgeon if she agreed with SNP MSP and former minister Alex Neil that a full judicial inquiry was needed to cut through what she called the “secrecy, evasion and unbelievable nonsense coming from the SNP on this point”.

The First Minister repeated she had nothing to hide and accused Ms Davidson of neglecting the pandemic.

“Most people out there who are listening to this exchange and living with the consequences of Covid - people who might have lost people to Covid or who are worried about their jobs and their livelihoods and who probably want to hear me talk about the things that we are doing to get the country through Covid - will be looking at Ruth Davidson now and saying, ‘What on earth is she thinking?’”