Like an ageing gunfighter waiting for the final showdown, Alex Salmond has been kicking his heels outside the old court house for weeks. Winds blow, doors squeak, clocks tick – and still no-one came. All we heard was the muffled cries of black-coated lawyers arguing about how many angels could occupy the head of a pin. Until now.

The Salmond inquiry may appear to be an incomprehensible legal imbroglio, involving abstruse doctrines like “evidential disclosure”, “contempt of court” and “jigsaw identification”. But in essence it is very simple. The committee charged with responsibility for investigating this Scottish Government’s greatest scandal has used a number of legal devices to avoid hearing the testimony of the central figure in that scandal, Alex Salmond.

This is testimony, moreover, which is already in the public domain, in redacted, i.e. censored form – quite rightly, to protect the identities of the complainers in the Salmond criminal trial, which actually has nothing directly to do with the scandal at issue. To wit: the Scottish Government losing half-a-million pounds of public money and behaving in a manner “unfair, unlawful and tainted with apparent bias”, according to the highest civil court in the land.

People often say that it’s not the offence that does the damage but the cover-up, and that is true. But it’s rare indeed for politicians to cover up stuff that is already out there for all to see. Perhaps this committee’s worst offence, or rather Nicola Sturgeon’s since she is ultimately in charge, has been to make Parliament and the law look ridiculous.

On Thursday, the Corporate Body of the Scottish Parliament, the executive branch of Holyrood, finally ruled that Salmond’s evidence could be heard by MSPs.Yet, on Friday morning, the committee, which has a pro-Government majority, still seemed intent on blocking it, according to a Tweet from the committee member and Green MSP Andy Wightman. Still on the grounds of anonymity.

READ MORE: Latest figures show 827 new cases and five deaths amid calls for stronger testing system

At the time of writing, Alex Salmond appears ready to give his oral evidence to the committee on Wednesday, provided that the committee will hear it.

But no-one knows if this will happen as this story changes almost by the hour. MSPs may have to consider the risk of Martians being exposed to criminal evidence following the Perseverance landing.

There has long been a suspicion that the committee is trying to run down the clock on its investigation so that it has to be postponed until after the May parliamentary election.

The true author of this cover-up-that-isn’t is not the Crown Office, of course, but the SNP Government. The harassed harassment committee has voted essentially on party lines throughout on this pro-Government majority. The SNP MSP George Adam took the extraordinary step last week of accusing members of the Corporate Body of “jeopardising the court-ordered anonymity of complainants in sexual offences cases”. “What if it had been their wife, their daughter, their mother,” he went on, “would they have made the same decision?” To suggest that fellow MSPs on this body, who are elected by the Parliament, would risk the welfare of complainants is astonishing.

Now, the identities of those complainants in the Salmond criminal trial may be known to some in the SNP but they are not known to the public. The Salmond testimony does not disclose anything new about their identities. The women who made the allegations – of which Mr Salmond was wholly acquitted – included “an SNP politician, a party worker and several current and former Scottish Government civil servants”. And you can look that up on the BBC news website, because it was information the Crown Office agreed should be made public after Salmond’s trial. If that’s in contempt, so is the prosecution service.

The question is not about the identities of the complainants, but Salmond’s claim there was a plot against him. He has sworn testimony to that effect, not least from the senior party worker, Anne Harvey, a lawyer, who says that there was a “witch-hunt” against the former First Minister and that she received an “improper request” from SNP HQ seeking material to “damage” him. Mr Salmond also cites evidence from Geoff Aberdein, another lawyer, suggesting that Nicola Sturgeon was not telling the truth about what she knew about the Salmond affair and when she knew it.

Again, all this is in the public domain and involves no disclosures, jigsaws or contempt of court. Indeed, the oddest thing about this cover-up is that it isn’t covered up. Everyone knows the outlines of what happened, even if they don’t know the name, rank and serial number of the people involved.

It will, of course, be for the public to make up their own minds about why the Scottish Government behaved unlawfully – but they can make an informed guess.

You might wonder why Alex Salmond is still bothered about this appearance since anyone who reads a newspaper knows perfectly well what he is going to say. First, that Nicola Sturgeon failed to tell the truth about her meetings with him in 2018 to discuss harassment allegations against him; second, that the Scottish Government’s own lawyers agreed with him that the investigation into those allegations was unlawful; and third, that there is evidence of senior officials wanting to “get him”.

It is perhaps no accident that these claims, already published by the BBC and other organs, bear some similarity with the claims of “malicious prosecution” admitted by the Crown Office in the Rangers bankruptcy case. That led to a bill for approaching £100 million in damages and costs to the wronged suspects. That rather puts Salmond’s £512,000 in the shade, but who is counting?

READ MORE: Pfizer vaccine reduces risk of Covid illness by 95.8 per cent as Israel introduces 'green badge' system

As is rightly the case in political scandals, it all comes down to a question of accountability. Crudely: who carries the can for the cock-up? The official in executive charge of the Salmond investigation was the permanent secretary, Leslie Evans. Had she accepted responsibility, and considered her position, the last two years of obfuscation and bluster need never have happened. The committee would have had very little to investigate.

As for anonymity, there would never have been any question of the complainants being identified, accidentally or otherwise, had it not been for the Scottish Government and the Crown Office. Indeed, if anyone is guilty of jigsaw identification, it would appear to be the SNP and the Lord Advocate. By using these women to inhibit proper scrutiny of the Government, they have attracted the attention of every nosey blogger and tweeter on the internet eager to discover their identities.

There need have been no shootout at the Holyrood corral. Had honour been satisfied, Mr Salmond could have holstered his guns content that he has not only been acquitted of all criminal charges, but that the Government has accepted that the original attempt to portray him as “Scotland’s Harvey Weinstein”

was unlawful and biased.

Instead, the SNP, whose unity was legendary, has become irreconcilably divided between the two most important figures, Salmond and Sturgeon.

Whatever happens this week, the party isn’t big enough for the both of them.