NICOLA Sturgeon must carry the can for the Alex Salmond affair, the Scottish Tories have said, after reports her underlings are being lined up for the chop.

The Tories said the buck had to stop with the First Minister for high-level failings, and she should not be allowed to pass responsibility to a series of fall-guys.

It followed reports that the Scottish Government’s top official, the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, would be a likely casualty of the inquiry.

The First Minister’s husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and her chief of staff Liz Lloyd, were also reported to be headed for career changes. 

The inquiry is looking at how the Scottish Government bungled a probe into sexual misconduct allegations made against Mr Salmond in 2018.

The former first minister had the flawed exercise set aside in a judicial review, costing taxpayers £512,000. 

He was later charged with sexual assault but cleared on all counts at the High Court in March last year.

Ms Sturgeon has been accused of misleading parliament about meetings with Mr Salmond while he was under investigation and so breaking the ministerial code - a resignation offence which she strongly denies.

Mr Salmond is expected to make it again in his oral evidence to MSPs on Wednesday.

Ms Sturgeon is also facing new questions today about whether it is “plausible” that she only learned of sexual misconduct allegations against Mr Salmond five months after they were first raised inside her government.

The First Minister told parliament that her predecessor first told her about the matter on April 2, 2018, and that the Government’s procedure for handling formal complaints had stopped officials from telling her.

However the Scottish Sun on Sunday reported that the Government’s draft policy did initially allow Ms Sturgeon to be told by her officials, and this was only changed after Ms Sturgeon and Ms Evans held a previously secret meeting about it on 29 November 2017, three weeks after the first informal complaints surfaced.

The procedure was rewritten on December 5, 2017 to say that the First Minister should only be told of complaints once an internal investigation had concluded.

The November 29 meeting was omitted from the Scottish Government’s official timeline of events given to the inquiry, but appears in court papers agreed during the judicial review, albeit in a coded form.

The open record states that on November 29, 2017 “the first respondent [Ms Evans] met with the interested party [Ms Sturgeon] to discuss development of the proposed procedure”.

The informal complaints about Mr Salmond only became formal complaints in January 2018.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, who sits on the inquiry, said Ms Sturgeon could not hide behind her husband and senior officials for her own failure to be transparent.

He said: “The buck must stop with Nicola Sturgeon.

"It was her Government who botched the investigation and cost the public purse at least £500,000 in pursuing a lost cause. And it was her Government who so badly let down the women involved in this case.

“The First Minister’s inner circle including her husband and senior officials have serious questions hanging over them in relation to their own conduct. However, Nicola Sturgeon cannot use them to hide behind.

“She must stand up and take responsibility for the SNP Government’s failings as they investigated her predecessor. She promised to be fully co-operative with this inquiry but has been obstructive at every turn.

“We see yet more questions over what she knew and when about the allegations against her friend and political mentor of over 30 years. She seems determined to fool everyone by failing to be transparent.

“This whole affair stinks to high heaven and the truth must be heard. Whatever is concluded from this inquiry, it is imperative that is Nicola Sturgeon who carries the can for the shambolic failings of her Government.

“If she’s found to have broken the Ministerial Code, then she must resign.”

Referring to the meeting of November 29, 2017, and when Ms Sturgeon first learned of possible complaints against Mr Salmond, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “There are now even more serious questions about when Nicola Sturgeon knew about the allegations against Alex Salmond and whether it’s plausible she was really in the dark.” 

Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilon added: “You would have to be a very bold civil servant to decide not to notify the first minister of these allegations, at a time when the changes to the complaints procedure which took her out of the loop had not yet been completed.”

A Scottish Government spokesman for it had detailed why the procedure for investigating complaints against former ministers was created and it was not directed at any individual.

He said: “Formal complaints were received in January 2018 and were handled using the finalised version of the procedure. 

“Scottish Government witnesses including the permanent secretary have given detailed evidence to the committee about this process and the first minister has set out to parliament when she was informed of complaints against Mr Salmond. 

“The First Minister continues to look forward to giving evidence to the committee.”

Ms Sturgeon is due to give her evidence to the inquiry in early March.

Kevin Pringle, Mr Salmond’s former spindoctor at the SNP and in Government, said party members “can only guess and fear how the next fortnight will go”.

Writing in the Sunday Times, he said Mr Salmond’s appearance “will escalate a crisis without precedent in the country’s politics”.

He added: “If the issue hasn’t cut through to public consciousness before, it will now.” 

He also said the SNP had itself to blame for much of the perception that it begrudged the scrutiny from the inquiry and had tried to obfuscate, while its ferocious attack on Holyrood managers for agreeing to publish Mr Salmond’s latest evidence had been “unwise”.