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Nelson McCausland

Alex Salmond's acquittal leaves Nicola Sturgeon with questions to answer in court of public opinion

Nelson McCausland


SNP faces a nasty internal battle after its ex-leader is cleared of attempted rape and sexual assault

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Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon

PA

In the spotlight: Alex Salmond

In the spotlight: Alex Salmond

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Nicola Sturgeon

As Britain battles coronavirus, newspapers across the nation, both local and national, have been dominated with reports and analysis about the worldwide pandemic. Meanwhile, 24-hour television news channels provide a constant flow of reports, expert analysis and statistics.

There are also many personal stories of great selflessness and, sadly, some others of incredible selfishness.

However, on Tuesday morning, newspapers in one part of the United Kingdom devoted most of their front pages to another story.

That part was Scotland and the story was the acquittal of Alex Salmond in a high-profile court case.

In August 2018, Mr Salmond resigned from the SNP after allegations of sexual misconduct and, in January 2019, he was charged with 14 offences, including attempted rape and sexual assault.

The 10 women who made the allegations against Mr Salmond included an SNP politician, a party worker and several current and former civil servants and officials.

One charge was dropped, but on Monday, after an 11-day trial, Mr Salmond was acquitted of the other 13 charges by majority verdicts.

He must have been relieved, but the trial must have been embarrassing. Even his defence lawyer admitted that he had acted "inappropriately" in relation to a number of women.

Mr Salmond was acquitted of the criminal charges, but the fallout from the trial will pour petrol on a smouldering fire in the ranks of the SNP.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is a confident performer in the Scottish Parliament and in the media, but all is not well in the party and, for some time, there has been talk, albeit muted talk, of the need for a new leader.

There has been division and animosity within the SNP for some time and, back in February, Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for the Western Isles, launched a scathing attack on Nicola Sturgeon's government, accusing it of "dithering" over independence.

After Mr Salmond's trial ended on Monday, SNP MP Kenny MacAskill, a former Scottish justice secretary, tweeted: "Some resignations now required."

Meanwhile, SNP MSP Alex Neil has demanded a judge-led inquiry into claims of an SNP government "conspiracy" against Mr Salmond.

Joanna Cherry QC, a prominent SNP MP and a close ally of Mr Salmond, said: "Some of the evidence which has come to light raises very serious questions over the process that was employed within the Scottish Government to investigate the alleged complaints."

On top of the questions about what did, or did not happen, in private in Bute House, which was then Mr Salmond's official residence, there are the questions about whether or not there was a conspiracy within the SNP and Scottish government against him.

The second issue is potentially complicated by the fact that the chief executive officer of the SNP, Peter Murrell, is the husband of Nicola Sturgeon.

The coronavirus crisis will delay developments, but there will be further investigations and, later this year, there will be a Holyrood inquiry into a botched internal investigation of complaints against Mr Salmond.

Such inquiries will keep the unsavoury story in the news and before the electorate and they also have the potential to go in unexpected directions.

Mr Salmond seems determined to bring into the public domain evidence that, he believes, will demonstrate that there was an internal SNP conspiracy against him and the inquiry could provide the vehicle for that.

Before the trial, his lawyer presented in closed court details of text messages between senior figures in the Scottish Government and SNP, which, Mr Salmond argues, proves there was orchestration against him.

Then, outside the court on Monday, Mr Salmond said: "There was certain evidence we weren't able to (present to the court). At some point, that information will see the light of day."

The next elections to the Scottish Parliament are set for May 2021 and the Salmond affair could influence the outcome of that election.

The SNP is already tarnished by the whole affair, with its stories of poor behaviour by Mr Salmond and allegations of a conspiracy against him.

The party also faces the prospect of a nasty internal battle and there is ample evidence that voters do not like a divided party.

This could afford an opportunity for other parties to make advances and eat into the SNP vote and that will be important, because the SNP will want to turn the election into a referendum on independence.

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