By almost any measure, these should be the best of times for Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Ms. Sturgeon’s popularity has soared during the pandemic, and polls show her Scottish National Party is on track for a massive victory in elections in May. Her dream of an independent Scotland is also looking better than ever, with surveys putting support for sovereignty above 50 per cent for the first time.
But her political future has been put under a cloud because of an increasingly bitter fallout with her one-time mentor Alex Salmond, a former First Minister and SNP leader. Mr. Salmond has been waging war on Ms. Sturgeon and senior government figures ever since he was found not guilty last year of 13 sexual-assault charges, which involved complaints from nine female ex-staffers.
He escalated the feud this week by accusing Ms. Sturgeon and other government officials of a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to ruin his reputation and put him in jail. “No one in this entire process has uttered the simple words which are necessary on occasions to renew and refresh democratic institutions – ‘I Resign,’ ” he said in a written statement.
Ms. Sturgeon has dismissed his allegations as baseless conspiracy theories. In a further dig, she told reporters this week that while Mr. Salmond had been found not guilty, “that doesn’t mean that the behaviour [the women] claimed didn’t happen, and I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that.”
Beyond the mudslinging, there’s a lot at stake. A civil court has already ruled that the government acted unlawfully in its internal review of the allegations and a committee of the Scottish Parliament has launched an inquiry into how Ms. Sturgeon and others handled the case. A separate probe is examining whether Ms. Sturgeon misled Parliament about her actions and breached the ministerial code of conduct, which could compel her to resign.
Mr. Salmond, 66, ratcheted up the tension on Friday in a five-hour appearance before the parliamentary committee. During the hearing he accused government officials, prosecutors and Ms. Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell – who is the SNP’s chief executive – of pressuring the police and colluding with witnesses.
“The Scottish civil service has not failed – its leadership has,” he told members of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints. “Scotland hasn’t failed – its leadership has failed.” He added that he had “no doubt that [Ms. Sturgeon] broke the ministerial code.”
Ms. Sturgeon, 50, will present her side to the committee next week.
Most observers say the scandal hasn’t yet affected Ms. Sturgeon’s popularity because the public is more focused on COVID-19. But that could change as more revelations emerge and Ms. Sturgeon’s conduct comes under closer scrutiny.
“Where the damage is likely to be done is just simple reputation and the sense that there’s something stinking,” said James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University. “That could stick and damage Nicola Sturgeon.”
Whatever happens, it’s a spectacular end to what was once one of the most powerful political partnerships in Britain.
They met in 1990 when Mr. Salmond was running for the SNP leadership and Ms. Sturgeon was a teenaged party activist. He was so impressed that he encouraged her to run for office. “He believed in me long before I believed in myself,” Ms. Sturgeon once said.
Ms. Sturgeon won a seat in the Scottish legislature in 1999 and became deputy leader to Mr. Salmond in 2004. They took the SNP to power for the first time in 2007 and won an even larger victory in 2011. Three years later, they came close to winning a referendum on Scottish independence, losing 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Mr. Salmond resigned after the referendum and Ms. Sturgeon took over as party leader and First Minister.
Since then, their paths have diverged dramatically. While Ms. Sturgeon went on to win another mandate in 2016, Mr. Salmond tried to revive his political career by running for a seat in Westminster as a U.K. Member of Parliament. He was elected in 2015 but lost in the subsequent election two years later.
Mr. Salmond returned to Scotland and embarrassed Ms. Sturgeon by launching a show on Kremlin-backed RT television and making lewd jokes about women during an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. Relations between them strained further when the sexual-assault allegations surfaced in 2018, dating back to Mr. Salmond’s time as First Minister.
“I suspect it’s just a case in which he struggled a bit to become a backseat driver and he possibly expected the successor to do what he would have done, and possibly to continue doing what he said,” said Robert Johns, a politics professor at Essex University who studies Scottish elections. “It’s the master struggling when the apprentice takes over.”
The party has largely lined up behind Ms. Sturgeon, but cracks are showing. Ms. Sturgeon recently fired one of the SNP’s senior MPs, Joanna Cherry, from her role as justice critic after she backed Mr. Salmond. Former deputy leader Jim Sillars has also called for “a revolt and a change in leadership; a real sweeping change.”
There has been some concern among SNP members that the scandal could detract from Ms. Sturgeon’s push for another referendum on independence. While support for sovereignty has risen, it’s still tight.
But Dr. Johns doubts the feud will be a factor. “The psychodrama of this captures lots of people, but it can’t shift them from pro-independence to against independence or vice-versa,” he said. “There’s just a limit for it to have any political impact.”
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