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Nicola Sturgeon's 'snake oil act' in Alex Salmond inquiry raises more questions, says Graham Grant

It was a slick performance by a politician fighting for her job – but Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority wasn’t impressing the committee. Much of her appearance was a pitch to the ordinary punter, which accounts for some of the more emotional moments.

She spoke of Alex Salmond as her former ‘bestie’, a ‘revered’ man.

But she was also able to portray Mr Salmond as an egotist ‘who tends to see most things as being about him’.

He was a ‘tough guy’ to work for and ‘most of us had become a bit inured’ to his behaviour – indeed Miss Sturgeon said she had ‘lingering suspicions’ about him following claims of an alleged incident at Edinburgh Airport. She didn’t elaborate on those suspicions.

And there was an apologetic tone from the outset – she said sorry for a situation that ultimately let down the women who said they’d been harassed. This was surer ground than the quicksand of the minutiae of what she knew and when.

But don’t be fooled by the snake-oil act: there was a lot she’d conveniently forgotten – and questions she wasn’t able (or was unwilling) to address.

Graham Grant writes: Don’t be fooled by the snake-oil act: there was a lot she’d conveniently forgotten – and questions she wasn’t able (or was unwilling) to address

A recurring phrase was she didn’t want to tell the committee how to do its job – that’s exactly what she went on to do.

There was much that Miss Sturgeon claimed she did not know: she didn’t know why the leak about the in-house harassment probe hadn’t been reported to police.

She didn’t know the identities of the alleged victims in the criminal trial; she didn’t know whether government lawyers had threatened to quit over the doomed bid to contest Mr Salmond’s judicial review.

And she didn’t know what text or WhatsApp messages Mr Salmond had seen – communications he says back up his claims of a ‘malicious’ campaign against him.

Asked about a WhatsApp message from her husband, Peter Murrell, in which he suggested it was a good time to be ‘pressurising’ police, Miss Sturgeon said: ‘If the committee gets to see the full version, you will see a very different impression.’

Of course, there’s a lot that MSPs hadn’t had the chance to see, often because of the obfuscation of her government, and Miss Sturgeon spoke of her ‘frustration’ about this (despite being in a position to do something about it).

As to whether she had offered to intervene in the government’s Salmond probe, evidence the committee has seen suggests she did.

Advocate Duncan Hamilton, a former Nationalist MSP, said: ‘My clear recollection is that her words were: “If it comes to it, I will intervene”.’

Yesterday Miss Sturgeon said she may have given Mr Salmond the impression she would intervene – because she was trying to ‘let a long-standing friend and colleague down gently’. In her earlier written submission to the inquiry, Miss Sturgeon had said: ‘I made clear to him I had no role in the process and would not seek to intervene in it.’

So, what precisely did she say? It’s difficult to know, as her own story seems to have shifted – and is contradicted by Mr Hamilton’s version of events.

On the SNP Government’s costly decision to fight Mr Salmond’s judicial review, Miss Sturgeon said it was a ‘regrettable’ situation.

But no one has been sacked because government is still looking into who’s to blame – though she accepted as head of the government she had ultimate responsibility. She was asked if she would quit if a standards probe found she had breached the ministerial code, but no straight answer was given.

The First Minister originally claimed she became aware of the Government investigation on April 2, 2018, later admitting to a March 29 meeting with Mr Salmond’s chief of staff Geoff Aberdein.

In six hours of brutal testimony last week, Alex Salmond laid out a case that senior SNP figures conspired to try to force him out of public life over harassment claims

She said that at the March 29 meeting, Mr Aberdein ‘did indicate a harassment-type issue had arisen, but my recollection is he did so in general terms’.

The SNP leader told the committee she wishes her memory of the meeting on March 29 was ‘more vivid’, but ‘it was the detail of the complaints under the procedure that I was given on April 2 that was significant and indeed shocking’.

Miss Sturgeon knew nothing about a Government official meeting with Mr Aberdein to discuss the harassment claims against Mr Salmond. She didn’t know about Mr Aberdein’s evidence on oath in court at Mr Salmond’s trial last year – she wasn’t in court.

Then there are the claims that the name of one of the complainants was handed to Mr Aberdein by a Scottish Government official (and later conveyed to Mr Salmond).

Miss Sturgeon said she wasn’t ‘party’ to the discussion. ‘To the best of my knowledge what was being alleged didn’t happen,’ she told Labour MSP Jackie Baillie.

The First Minister had said last week: ‘To the best of my knowledge, I do not think that happened.’ In the intervening few days, she has become more confident – yesterday she was sure – to the ‘best of her knowledge’ – it hadn’t happened.

Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell voiced frustration over the way the committee had been treated, including documents it hadn’t been allowed to see, and condemned the ‘collective amnesia’ of witnesses.

That amnesia may be catching, and during her marathon grilling Miss Sturgeon showed some tell-tale symptoms. For all her relative composure, this wasn’t the tour de force portrayed by her supporters.

Miss Sturgeon gave it her all – but only succeeded in raising further questions about her conduct.

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