NICOLA Sturgeon misled parliament over the Alex Salmond affair, MSPs have concluded.

The Holyrood inquiry into the affair found the First Minister gave "an inaccurate account" of her actions and so misled the cross-party investigation.

However it stopped short of saying she did so "knowingly", the threshold for resignation under the Scottish Ministerial Code.

It is understood the inquiry split down party lines 5-4 on the issue earlier today, and decided Ms Sturgeon broke the code on the balance of probabilities, with only SNP MSPs clearing their leader.

The decision is likely to increase pressure on Ms Sturgeon to stand down before May's election.

The Scottish Tories have said they wil bring forward a vote of no confidence in Ms Sturgeon before Holyrood breaks for the election on March 25.

The First Minister's spokesman said she "told the truth" in her eight-hour evidence session a fortnight ago, and accused opposition MSPs of "partisan and selective briefing" ahead of the full inquiry report coming out.

But the opposition parties scented blood.


Douglas Ross

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: "We cannot set a precedent that a First Minister of Scotland can mislead the Scottish Parliament and get away with it. 

"We have to trust that the First Minister will be truthful. We no longer can.

"We have called out the First Minister based on the overwhelming evidence that she misled Parliament.

"We will continue to hold her to the same standards as previous First Ministers of Scotland and demand that she resigns."

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar added: “I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the committee report and we await its findings, but if it does conclude that the First Minister has misled Parliament and potentially breached the ministerial code then that is incredibly serious.

“This is about the integrity of our Scottish Parliament and upholding standards in public life.

“The code which the First Minister has promised to follow by the letter is clear - any minister who is found in breach of the ministerial code has a duty to resign.”

Liberal Democrat MP, and former MSP, Jamie Stone added: "This uncertainty is really damaging to the public trust in our elected Scottish leaders and our democracy.

"My appeal is heartfelt, to all involved, for God sake: come clean, tell the truth, and do right by the Scottish people.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon denies intervening over Alex Salmond claims

It is understood the inquiry concluded Ms Sturgeon misled parliament over a meeting she had with Mr Salmond at her Glasgow home on April 2, 2018.


Ms Sturgeon gives evidence

The First Minister initially insisted she did not know what Mr Salmond wanted to discuss with her, then changed her story in light of other people's evidence.

She has consistently said she did not offer to intervene in a Government sexual misconduct probe into Mr Salmond, despite him asking her to help resolve the matter quietly by mediation. 

"As First Minister, I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his  status and connections to get what he wants," she told the inquiry in her oral evidence earlier this month.

"I feel very strongly that it would not have been right for me to intervene, however much I might, in my heart, have wanted to help a friend, although the nature of the situation was more complex than that.

"It would not have been right for me to do it, and that is why I did not do it."

However other witnesses said Ms Sturgeon did offer to intervene in the probe.

It is understood the inquiry concluded the First Minister gave a misleading account of the meeting and did not believe her denials of offering to help her old friend.

READ MORE: Five reasons why the wheels have come off the SNP communication machine

The cross-party committee is looking at how the Scottish Government bungled its probe into sexual misconduct allegations levelled against Mr Salmond in 2018.

The former First Minister had the exercise set aside in a judicial review by showing it had been tainted by apparent bias, a flaw that left taxpayers with a £512,000 bill for his costs.

After the Government's defence collapsed, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she had three meetings with Mr Salmond while he was under investigation by her officials.

She insisted she took the meetings in her capacity as SNP leader, and so no Government records were kept.

She said the first she knew Mr Salmond was under investigation was when he told her himself at her home on April 2, 2018, and that she hadn't known what he wanted to discuss, although she thought he might be about to resign over a sexual scandal.


Former First Minister Alex Salmond

But it later emerged Mr Salmond's former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, had told her about the Government probe in her Holyrood office, on March 29, 2018.

Ms Sturgeon claims she "forgot" about this first meeting, despite the explosive content, and that it had been fleeting and opportunistic.

Mr Salmond has claimed Ms Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by misleading Holyrood about the nature of both meetings.

Earlier this month, two senior figures backed up Mr Aberdein's assertion that Ms Sturgeon agreed to meet Mr Salmond on April 2 in the full knowledge that he wanted to discuss the misconduct probe.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon denies wanting to 'get' Alex Salmond

Kevin Pringle, a former SNP communications director, told the inquiry said the purpose of the meeting had been clear in advance.

Duncan Hamilton QC, a former SNP MSP, also said that Ms Sturgeon offered to intervene in the matter.

In written evidence, he said: “My clear recollection is that her words were ‘If it comes to it, I will intervene.’ 

“From a legal perspective, that was the most important aspect of the meeting. I therefore remember it clearly.”

He said she later changed her mind, which came as a surprise to him.


In her oral evidence, Ms Sturgeon claimed Mr Salmond and others might have taken away the wrong impression because she had been trying to "let a long-standing friend and colleague down gently".

She said: "Perhaps I did that too gently and he left with an impression that I did not intend to give him. I think that I was clear, and I certainly intended to be clear."

However that did convince the inquiry, with MSPs noting a "fundamental contradiction" in the evidence on the alleged intervention.

“Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened and she has misled the Committee on this matter. This is a potential breach of the Ministerial Code under the terms of section 1.3(c).” 

Section 1.3(c) states: "It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.

"Ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation."

The inquiry said it was “concerned” it took Ms Sturgeon so long to inform her top official, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, about the meeting, and it was "inappropriate" for her to have further contacts with Mr Salmond in the circumstances.

“She should have made the Permanent Secretary aware of her state of knowledge of the complaints and the fact of the meetings at the earliest opportunity after 2nd April, at which point she should have confirmed that she would cease all further contact with Mr Salmond on that subject.”

Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly denied breaching the code, but has refused to say if she would resign if she was found to have broken it.

It is understood the inquiry's 170-page report, which is due out on Tuesday, does not say Ms Sturgeon knowlingly misled parliament as it did not have access to sufficient evidence to establish that.

However a separate independent investigation on the code by former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton QC is expected to give a definitive ruling within days.

If he finds that Ms Sturgeon knowingly misled parliament, it could make her position untenable.

A spokesperson for the First Minister: "The First Minister told the truth to the committee in eight hours of evidence, and stands by that evidence.

“It is clear from past public statements that opposition members of this committee had prejudged the First Minister at the outset of the inquiry and before hearing a word of her evidence, so this partisan and selective briefing – before the committee has actually published its final report – is hardly surprising.

“The question of the First Minister’s adherence to the ministerial code is being considered independently by James Hamilton, and we expect to receive and publish his report soon.”

READ MORE: Alex Salmond Inquiry — Key dates as the saga unfolded

Boris Johnson tonight refused to say if Ms Sturgeon should resign if she is found to have broken the code.

The Prime Minister, who refused to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel for breaking the code, said the issue was “properly and rightly left to the parliament in Scotland to address and to the Scottish electorate”.

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: "Further to media reports on the Committee’s findings, the Committee is still finalising its report. There will be no further comment on the report ahead of its publication.”