Can Sturgeon versus Salmond possibly end as a "good crisis" for the SNP?

Admittedly, the suggestion is a bit of a stretch.

Friday’s long-awaited evidence session by Alex Salmond appeared to leave the party in the worst of all possible worlds. The former first minister neither "nailed" his successor with proof of a conspiracy, nor provided a clear run for her own Harassment Inquiry appearance on Wednesday. He didn’t put the genie back in the bottle (if anyone could) nor stop the feed of material that allows detractors to portray Scotland as a banana republic.

But the former SNP leader did confine his comments and pull his punches – so much so that weekend headlines were full of undisguised disappointment at the lack of blood on the carpet.

What happened?

Did Salmond bottle it, lack the evidence to floor his successor or have an entirely different purpose? Was his "true prize damaging Sturgeon" as commentators suggested and the BBC’s Sarah Smith asserted without bothering to check his actual words? Or did Alex Salmond essentially offer a compromise on Friday – no mercy for Leslie Evans, the Permanent Secretary who should have resigned when her investigation against Salmond was ruled unlawful in 2018, but a door left deliberately ajar for Nicola Sturgeon with the suggestion she might "inadvertently" have misled Parliament and breached the ministerial code only as Conservative ministers have done whilst still remaining in office.

Led twice to the brink, Salmond did not call for Nicola Sturgeon to resign or talk of a conspiracy. Such talk might restart if the Scottish Government’s legal advice is finally released or the committee obtains texts and WhatsApp messages between senior SNP figures.

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But even without publication of these vital bits of evidence, Salmond may already have done what he wanted to do – prompt a public rethink about his situation and a serious reset of the Scottish Government rather than an end to the career of Nicola Sturgeon.

After all, no-one keen on rescuing his own political reputation from its current doldrums would choose to be remembered by history and the Yes movement as the man whose rampant ego and "wild claims" destroyed the woman most likely to deliver independence.

Of course, this could be naïve.

Revenge is a dish best served cold and it is possible Salmond’s impressive restraint and icy cool demeanour during Friday’s inquiry was a gigantic bluff, masking a deep-seated desire for revenge and contrived only because no documentary evidence directly incriminated the FM.

That still is the most popular explanation.

But another is possible.

Over several years nursing his wrath, Alex Salmond might have decided justice is better served by a shake-up of governance procedures, a clear separation of powers, a de-centralisation of authority and a change in the management of the SNP – not achieved by returning to power himself but by triggering a change in the line-up around Nicola Sturgeon.

Pressure to remove key figures like the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government Leslie Evans (and perhaps the Lord Advocate’s "dual mandate") has been slowly building and might be a productive and long overdue pruning exercise if performed right now - before the political growing season really gets under way.

Alternatively, big, back-tracking personnel changes by Nicola Sturgeon might permanently damage her own standing and budding support for independence.

Salmond versus Sturgeon has certainly demoralised the entire Yes movement, may have damaged the SNP in the run up to the May elections and stymied the steady rise in support for a second independence referendum.

But any damage might be temporary, especially if Alex Salmond (no stranger to the business of calculated risks) has consciously or accidentally triggered a useful clearing of the decks and a more open style of leadership and governance whilst also encouraging a separation of powers and greater scrutiny of Holyrood structures – in time, perhaps, for recovery before the elections in May.

Which is it to be?

Some hinges on what Alex does next. Most depends on the verdict of the Harassment Inquiry and the parallel inquiry by James Hamilton – set to report back with even more cliff-edge timing in April. But much also depends on Nicola Sturgeon.

She was loath to let her Chief Medical Officer go last April after Catherine Calderwood’s widely-publicised Covid breach, but realised hanging on would only damage her own reputation – as Boris Johnson's retention of Dominic Cummings was soon to prove.

It's much the same now.

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On Wednesday, the First Minister might mount an angry attack on "the ego of one man" because she can, because she feels like it and believes he deserves it. Or she might pause a moment, notice that behind the bombast an olive branch was being extended on Friday and consider whether it is time for Ms Evans to go.

Of course, the future of a government, First Minister and Harassment Inquiry shouldn’t be decided in a wee trade-off between two people however important and central to proceedings. But the start of rapprochement is there – unless the camps created around each figure are too entrenched, unless the desire to be proved right is now too strong and the prospect of war between Scotland’s most capable politicians is just too tantalising to resist.

Naturally, opposition parties and voices will keep stoking the confrontation. Naturally too, Nicola Sturgeon is angry at being forced to defend her reputation after a year on the endless front-line of Covid. Scots admire a "bonny fechter" and her supporters are urging her on. It might now be impossible to back down even a little in this "Battle of the Giants". And yet, a relatively boring, no-score draw might be the best possible outcome for the First Minister, for independence and (given the overwhelming lack of a popular substitute) for Scotland’s continuing progress out of lockdown.

No matter how much some folk would like Alex Salmond to simply evaporate, he won’t and neither will his challenge to Nicola Sturgeon’s government. The choice now is difficult – to escalate the battle on Wednesday or to compromise.

But it is her choice.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.