Nicola Sturgeon’s husband may have dealt a ‘fatal blow’ to her political career with his explosive evidence to the Alex Salmond inquiry, it was claimed last night.
Peter Murrell yesterday directly contradicted the First Minister’s sworn testimony over a meeting that she had held at their marital home with Mr Salmond.
His evidence has paved the way for closer scrutiny into whether Miss Sturgeon misled parliament by giving ‘false’ evidence.
Mr Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, told the Holyrood inquiry that the meeting in 2018 was very clearly ‘government business’, which would require a record to be taken.
But Miss Sturgeon has repeatedly insisted she saw the meeting as ‘party’ business, which does not require her to log it in records at all.
Peter Murrell yesterday (left) directly contradicted the sworn testimony of his wife (pictured right updating MSPs in the Scottish Parliament over Covid measures) over a meeting that she had held at their marital home with Mr Salmond
Mr Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, told the Holyrood inquiry that the meeting in 2018 was very clearly ‘government business’, which would require a record to be taken
Allegations, discussions, denials and a ‘forgotten’ key meeting
November 2017: Allegations regarding Alex Salmond’s behaviour are raised with the SNP by Sky News. Nicola Sturgeon said she spoke to him about this – and he ‘denied it’. No further action was taken.
March 29, 2018: Miss Sturgeon meets Geoff Aberdein in her Scottish parliament office where she has admitted they discussed the possibility of a meeting with Mr Salmond. Miss Sturgeon – after initially forgetting about this meeting – says there was ‘the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’.
April 2, 2018: Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond meet at the First Minister’s home. According to Miss Sturgeon, this is the first time she heard of the complaints made against him. Despite this, she has insisted that the matters discussed were party business.
April 23, 2018: Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond hold a ‘substantive’ phone discussion. During this call, Miss Sturgeon claims that Mr Salmond asked whether she would speak to Leslie Evans about ‘mediation’ with the complainants. A special adviser was in the room at the time.
June 6, 2018: Miss Sturgeon writes to Mrs Evans to inform her that she has held discussions with Mr Salmond.
June 7, 2018: Miss Sturgeon again meets Mr Salmond, this time in Aberdeen ahead of the SNP party conference.
July 14, 2018: Miss Sturgeon meets Mr Salmond at her home near Glasgow.
July 18, 2018: Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond speak again on the phone. Miss Sturgeon said that ‘by this time’ she was ‘anxious – as party leader and from the perspective of preparing my party for any potential public issue – to know whether his handling of the matter meant it was likely to become public in the near future.’
This is the last time Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond speak. During this time they also exchange a number of WhatsApp messages in which they discuss the affair – including Mr Salmond’s decision to seek a judicial review over the government’s probe into the two complaints. He goes on to win this and is awarded £500,000 in legal fees.
The complaints against Mr Salmond were made to the Scottish Government.
Miss Sturgeon is facing a series of probes into her involvement in the Salmond affair, including whether she breached the ministerial code.
Mr Salmond has called for this investigation to be broadened to look at whether she misled parliament.
If found to have done so, she would be expected to resign.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: ‘The SNP chief executive has sunk Nicola Sturgeon.
‘He has directly contradicted the First Minister and exposed her claim that it was party business to be utterly false.
‘Peter Murrell’s words indicate that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament, gave false evidence to the committee, and broke the ministerial code.
‘The SNP chief executive said today that the meetings with Alex Salmond were government, not party business.
‘That is the opposite of what she claims.
‘The First Minister’s ever-changing story has been dealt a fatal blow by her own chief executive and husband.
‘His evidence has shattered her claims to pieces.’
Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said: ‘If Peter Murrell, as chief executive of the SNP, wasn’t aware of the nature of the meeting in his own home, I’m astonished.
‘However, more serious would be if the First Minister was breaching the ministerial code and discussing details of the Government’s investigation to Alex Salmond.’
Mr Murrell claimed he was not aware of what the First Minister and her predecessor had discussed in early 2018 because it related to ‘government business’.
Speaking under oath, he told a Holyrood inquiry yesterday that he and his wife had not discussed the matter despite him realising there was something ‘serious’ going on.
Miss Sturgeon told parliament that no records of the meeting were taken – including minutes, notes and diary entries – because she was acting in her capacity as SNP leader and not First Minister.
But Mr Murrell’s evidence suggests that he was well aware the meeting was not ‘party’ business.
If she had met Mr Salmond to discuss issues relating to government business, the ministerial code states a record should be made.
Failing to do so would be in breach.
The code also says that if a minister knowingly misleads parliament, they will be ‘expected to offer their resignation’.
Alex Salmond was cleared of 13 charges of sexual assault in March 2020. The former SNP leader was then awarded more than £500,000 to cover his legal fees
Texts ‘weren’t part of a plot to bring Alex down’
Peter Murrell yesterday said he regretted the ‘out of character’ language he used in text messages about Alex Salmond.
The SNP’s chief executive appeared to suggest that Police Scotland should be pressured to pursue his party’s former leader.
The messages were sent the day after Mr Salmond had first appeared in court and was charged with a series of sexual assault offences, which he strongly denied.
The initial message to an unnamed person said: ‘Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions. Report now with the PF (procurator fiscal) on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressuring them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London.’
Another stated: ‘To be honest the more fronts he is having to firefight the better for all complainers. So CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) action would be a good thing.’
Yesterday, Mr Murrell told MSPs the messages did not mean to suggest the police should be leaned on. He said: ‘I can see the language that I used was open to misinterpretation. It wasn’t about pressuring the police.’
He acknowledged that when the text was sent on January 26, 2019, he had ‘some awareness that CPS action was possible or pending’ in relation to complaints about Mr Salmond from people in Westminster.
But Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie questioned how this was possible, when this did not become public until March 2020.
Miss Baillie asked Mr Murrell if the texts were ‘evidence of a plot to ensure the downfall of Alex Salmond and that you had a key role in that’.
Mr Murrell said: ‘No, because he had been charged by the time I sent those text messages. All complainers had come forward by that point, and the police had charged him, and he’d appeared in court. So it’s not true.’
Mr Murrell appeared in front of MSPs on the Holyrood inquiry examining the Government’s botched probe into complaints against Mr Salmond.
He was questioned about a meeting between Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond which took place at their Glasgow home on April 2, 2018.
The SNP leader previously claimed this was the first time she learned of the serious harassment complaints facing her former colleague.
However, it later emerged that she had learned of ‘allegations of a sexual nature’ against him at a meeting on March 29, 2018, with Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff.
Miss Sturgeon claims to have forgotten the details of this meeting.
Yesterday, Mr Murrell told MSPs: ‘I wasn’t at home, and I wasn’t aware of the capacity in which she was having the meetings.’
But he later admitted he had arrived back to the house as the April 2 meeting was wrapping up.
Asked if his wife told him about the details of the discussions, he said: ‘The issue that was raised with Nicola at the time was a Scottish Government matter and Scottish Government business is not for me.’
Miss Sturgeon previously claimed that she thought Mr Salmond had asked to meet her on April 2 to resign from the SNP.
Mr Murrell told MSPs his wife had initially ‘thought it was a party matter’ but ‘once Alex told her what the meeting was about then it became something else’.
Miss Sturgeon met Mr Salmond on three occasions to discuss the misconduct probe, on April 2, June 7 and July 14, 2018.
In written evidence to the Holyrood committee, she said all meetings were undertaken ‘as party leader and from the perspective of preparing my party for any potential public issue’.
Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: ‘The suggestion that Nicola Sturgeon gave her husband no warning of what was potentially the biggest threat to their party in its history, and a head start on bracing the party for impact is wholly implausible.’
The Scottish Government said: ‘The First Minister has set out the position clearly in her written evidence to parliament.
‘This has been published by the committee and Mr Murrell repeatedly made clear that this sets out the basis on which she had the meetings and contacts with Mr Salmond.’
STEPHEN DAISLEY: She wished him a happy birthday…then went in for the kill: Jackie Baillie wished the SNP chief executive a happy birthday with all the generosity of an executioner offering a condemned man his final cigarette
By Stephen Daisley
Committee Room 1 is a squat oval on the ground floor of the Scottish parliament. It is an unremarkable room but governments like this one end up in rooms like this – one way or another.
After the glory, after the vanity, comes the banal indignity of cheap carpets and glaring lights.
Under their unforgiving beams sat Peter Murrell, the most powerful man in Scotland no one has heard of.
Members of the harassment inquiry, SNP and otherwise, were businesslike towards him but there was no mistaking the import of the moment.
As Mr Nicola Sturgeon, Murrell is co-pilot of the country and a fierce political animal – but you couldn’t have guessed it from his demeanour.
SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell arrives to give evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee in Edinburgh
The jackal doesn’t howl. His register is low, almost soft, and his diction ever-so-slightly posh, but Scottish-posh – amongs become amongsts, but ‘ers’ are still ‘urrs’.
Murrell looks like a bank manager: beady eyes, shiny head, smart suit. You’d pass him in the street never knowing his power, which may be the very definition of power.
His answers often came slowly, studded with ponderous pauses and gazes ceilingwards. The air of good-natured confusion was a little overdone.
Perhaps he intended to come across like a mildly dotery Kirk minister who had misplaced his sermon notes, but there was something a little too practised in his routine.
Jackie Baillie wished the SNP chief executive a happy birthday with all the generosity of an executioner offering a condemned man his final cigarette.
‘I hope the First Minister finds time in her busy schedule to take you out this evening,’ she added, with a smile as sweet as acid.
‘I’m in Level 4,’ he riposted.
‘So you are. You could maybe get a takeaway then.’
‘If I’m a lucky boy.’
You could have tried to cut the tension with a knife but you would have needed a chainsaw.
‘Did you discuss your evidence that you’re giving today with the First Minister prior to coming here?’ she enquired. He told her no.
‘Hmph. Okay. That’s quite extraordinary,’ she breezed ahead, her biro scrawling ominously across a heavily tabbed notebook.
Next she interrogated him on an alleged incident from 2009 which he claimed to have learned about only in 2017.
‘Does this go on often, people not telling you things,’ she concern-trolled.
He countered that political parties were ‘strange beasts’ in which ‘we’re all just individuals – so if someone reports something to one member of the party and they don’t share that, it’s not something the SNP can be aware of’.
She was sceptical: ‘I am a member of a political party, too… and people are told things that go on, particularly of that nature, and they’re told quite quickly.
‘So I am genuinely surprised that you didn’t know at all.’
The Labour bruiser’s staunchest blow was pointing out the discrepancy between Murrell’s claim that Sturgeon’s meetings with Alex Salmond were not party business, and his wife’s insistence that they were not government business.
‘There’s a direct conflict in your statement compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement,’ she needled him.
‘There’s no dubiety about that. You have both written different things.’
‘I don’t accept that,’ he mumbled in protest.
‘It is in black and white.’
The suspiciously bronzed Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton gave a good accounting of himself, too.
He asked if Murrell had taken part in any meetings to plan the party’s response to allegations against Alex Salmond.
When Murrell said he had not, Cole-Hamilton was direct: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Murrell, I find it hard to believe you.’
The MSP pressed on: ‘You are legendary for your comms prowess and yet you mean to tell me that a variation in the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax debate took precedence over discussions of this nature, to prepare your party for the biggest bombshell in its history?’
From Murrell, only an icy, blank stare.
Power is unaccustomed to hard questions.