Taxpayers face new £55,000 bill to prep civil servants for Salmond hearings

On Monday, I wrote about the latest twist in the ‘Alex Salmond saga’ which is gripping Scottish politics. The former First Minister has made explosive allegations against his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, to the effect that she has broken the Ministerial Code and misled the Scottish Parliament. If substantiated, they could end her career.

The First Minister already seems to be in a potentially tricky position. Salmond claims to have several witnesses who can corroborate his version of events, whereas Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell (who also happens to be the SNP’s Chief Executive) have contradicted each others’ testimony.

Now the Daily Telegraph reveals that Scottish taxpayers stumped up almost £55,000 to help “prepare” six senior civil servants who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into the affair, sparking concerns from astonished MSPs that these witnesses might have been ‘coached’. As the paper reports:

“Staff logs released in response to a Freedom of Information request also show that witnesses spent several hours preparing for sessions, only to then face criticism for “forgetting” crucial details, giving misleading evidence, or dodging questions. Despite the extensive and costly preparation, and appearing under oath, four of the six civil servants were forced to correct or clarify their evidence after their appearances.”

Salmond himself has also hit out at the expense, saying that “the cost of the cover-up continues to mount”. MSPs are of course investigating because he ended up being awarded over £500,000 in costs after the courts ruled that the Scottish Government’s initial inquiry into him was unlawful and potentially biased.

The Telegraph also reports that the ex-SNP leader is wrangling with lawyers over whether or not he can release certain documents he obtained during his trial. Salmond says that if he is not allowed to do so, it may render him unable to fulfil his oath of truthfulness in front of MSPs.

In the meantime, the Nationalists’ posture of extreme defensiveness towards the whole thing is unchanged. Having frequently stonewalled the inquiry and refused to release evidence, now John Swinney, the SNP’s deputy leader, has refused to broaden the scope of the inquiry into his boss.

According to the Herald, a cross-party group of MSPs on the Holyrood committee wanted the Scottish Government to formally broaden the scope of the investigation being conducted by James Hamilton, the independent advisor on the Code, to address the specific allegations levelled by Salmond. But whilst Sturgeon has said that he can explore ‘any issue’, Swinney’s refusal to officially sanction the broader investigation suggests they are not nearly so relaxed as the First Minister would like people to believe.

There were also some interesting stories on the health front. First, the Sunday Mail revealed that the SNP’s £500 bung to NHS workers is being paid for out of the Covid-19 grant from Westminster. This has been attacked because it will go to “highly paid doctors and health service ­managers” and not low-paid frontline workers outwith the NHS.

Second, the Times reports that claims by Jeane Freeman, the Nationalist health minister, that the UK Government had ‘back-ended’ Scotland’s vaccine shipments are not borne out by the data. Earlier this week, my colleague Charlotte revealed that SNP members are amongst the least likely to take the vaccine, and most likely to worry that it will prove unsafe or ineffective, of any political group.

Nor have the other divisions within the SNP gone away whilst this drags on. This week Joanna Cherry, a high-profile Nationalist MP and ally of Salmond, made headlines by urging separatist activists to prepare alternative pathways to independence in the event that the British Government continues to refuse to grant a re-run of the 2014 vote. This reflects growing grassroots frustration with Sturgeon’s gradualist, by-the-book approach which could yet boil over if the First Minister finds herself politically wounded, yet in office and deprived of a plebiscite, after the upcoming Scottish elections.

Johnson and Gove to meet and set Union strategy

On the subject of the referendum, the Herald reports that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove “are set to hold private talks on how to give the Union a “big push” in the face of rising support in opinion polls for Scottish independence and May’s Holyrood elections.”

The plan is apparently to launch a new campaign to promote the UK in the spring, ahead of the Scottish elections currently slated for May but which will probably be pushed back into the summer. Officials have reportedly been discussing the four Home Nations ‘jumping together’ to delay the polls. Central to it will be the delayed Dunlop Review, which is looking at how the British Government can maintain and enhance its ‘Union capability‘ in the era of devolution.

As I noted on UnHerd yesterday, such a meeting could also see an important clash between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (‘CDL’, in Whitehall parlance) over the broader direction of the Government’s pro-UK strategy. Johnson’s instincts seem to be much more aggressive than Gove’s, who has some in government worried about an ‘appease the SNP’ mentality on the part of his team.

In other news Michelle Ballantyne, a right-wing MSP who has previously challenged for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, has defected to become the first representative in the Scottish Parliament of Reform UK, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle. This will probably be a disappointment to the Alliance for Unity (George Galloway’s outfit), who have been trying to position themselves as the outsiders’ force in Scottish unionism.