THERE is dramatic irony in the fact that the leak of the Salmond inquiry’s conclusion that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament, thus breaking the ministerial code, would itself be a breach of the ministerial code. Nor would it be surprising if the committee has divided on political lines; to imagine that any examination of ministers, officials and special advisers does not have a political component, or would not be used for political advantage, is naïve.

It does not follow, however, that members of the committee “made their minds up” before the First Minister gave her evidence. To assume that before the report’s publication is itself to anticipate matters.

If reports of the headline finding are accurate, however, it does not necessarily lead to any wider conclusions. It does not prove Mr Salmond’s claims of a conspiracy have any basis, nor that “co-ordinated” activity (even if without malign intent) was at the behest of or with the knowledge of Ms Sturgeon.

It is simply a statement that a majority believed that some of the First Minister’s statements were in error, inconsistent, or not credible. Ms Sturgeon’s uncharacteristic forgetfulness, vagueness about dates and belated amendments and qualifications to her earlier statements certainly make it possible to take that view without political bias; but it is also possible that that conclusion is not as damning as her political opponents might like it to be.

The committee’s primary remit was to examine mistakes in applying the Government’s own complaints procedures, which led – as all sides concede – to failing the complainants, and to substantial costs to the taxpayer created by the decision to contest Mr Salmond’s case for judicial review. The results of a separate inquiry by James Hamilton QC, specifically on whether the ministerial code was breached, are expected imminently, and its findings are not likely to be contested on the grounds of partisan political interest.

Should he find that the First Minister did not breach the code, her personal position is probably secure, though it will not settle other serious questions around this mess. If he rules that she did, the question remains open.

Though it matters very much for Ms Sturgeon’s political future, in one sense whether Mr Hamilton or the committee make a judgment about whether any breach was “knowing” or not is irrelevant.

Ultimately, as Mr Salmond conceded when addressing the committee, it is for the parliament to decide (if a breach is the finding) whether it was intentional; indeed, even if they conclude it was, whether it amounts to a resigning matter.

It is true that some Westminster politicians have failed to adhere to that standard. It is also true that Ms Sturgeon promised to hold herself rigorously to the code, and that her party fiercely pursued former ministers for breaches that others might have thought trivial or technical.

The difficulty, and the most important issue raised by this whole debacle, is that parliament will make that judgment with insufficient powers to hold the executive to account, and with no guarantee that it has all the information needed to reach it. Ministers, including Ms Sturgeon, John Swinney and the Lord Advocate James Wolffe, have constantly failed to fulfill the promise of full disclosure.

Documents required by the committee were produced with great reluctance, after long delays and often redacted to the point of absurdity – even when they were already in the public domain, and it could be seen that the information removed was not prejudicial to the case or anonymity of complainants, but merely disobliging to ministers or the SNP. Since one thing the committee eventually discovered was that this pattern of concealment played a part in the collapse of the judicial review case, it is safe to characterise it as habitual.

It is an attitude that dates back years – with further dramatic irony, to Mr Salmond’s own time in office. It suggests an executive that has become secretive and arrogantly contemptuous of transparency, accountability, dissent and democratic norms. Whether Ms Sturgeon survives or not, this approach to government must not.