Tensions between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond over a sexual harassment investigation have escalated after her spokesman accused Salmond’s aides of trying to smear her.
Sturgeon’s political spokesman alleged that members of Salmond’s team were lying about when she and her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, first learned that Salmond was under investigation for allegedly sexually harassing two female civil servants.
Salmond’s aides briefed the Sun and the Times that Sturgeon and Lloyd knew about the investigation before Sturgeon and Salmond met at her home on 2 April – an allegation that directly contradicts the first minister’s claims that she did not know until Salmond told her that day.
The Times reported claims from Salmond’s team that Lloyd phoned Salmond on 6 March last year to warn him against standing if another election was called, because of the sexual harassment claims against him. Salmond denies the harassment claims.
In an official statement issued from his Scottish government email account, Sturgeon’s spokesman said: “This appears to be an attempt to smear the first minister. Suggestions by Mr Salmond’s ‘insiders’ that the first minister knew about the investigation before April 2 are not true.
“The suggestion put to Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff by the Times, that she knew of complaints when she met someone who could be described as an intermediary for Alex Salmond on 6March, is also not true.”
These denials mark a new low in the already fractious relationship between Sturgeon and Salmond, once her close friend and mentor, and brings the schism between the two into the public domain. They have not spoken in nearly six months.
The row will also deepen a growing rift within the Scottish National party, which hoped to capitalise on the UK government’s disarray over Brexit this week by building up the case for a second Scottish independence referendum. Senior SNP figures say privately that strategy has been comprehensively undermined by the feud between the pair.
Several SNP MPs, including Angus MacNeil, the MP for the Western Isles, and Joanna Cherry, are seen as supporters of Salmond’s case, alleging he has been unfairly traduced by Sturgeon’s government, as are many SNP activists.
The latest allegations from Salmond’s camp could be seen as a deliberate attempt to undermine Sturgeon’s credibility after she referred herself on Sunday to an independent panel that polices the ministerial code in Scotland.
The claims could be seen to bolster allegations from opposition parties that Sturgeon breached the ministerial code by failing to immediately notify the civil service that she had discussions about government business, and failed to record the content of those discussions.
The Conservatives and Labour reject Sturgeon’s insistence that the meetings were SNP-related, because they were explicitly arranged at Salmond’s request to discuss a Scottish government investigation. Sturgeon’s officials have refused to confirm or deny that Salmond asked her to intervene.
Sturgeon acknowledged on Thursday that she delayed telling Leslie Evans, the Scottish government’s chief civil servant, about either her meeting on 2 April or a subsequent phone call with Salmond on 28 April until 6 June, the day before she had a second private meeting with Salmond.
The first minister has repeatedly rejected complaints, raised privately by SNP MPs and publicly former SNP ministers, that the harassment inquiry should not have opened. Sturgeon insists sexual harassment claims need to be investigated without fear or favour, regardless of the status of the accused person.