As the beam of the Salmond inquiry’s spotlight edges towards Nicola Sturgeon, the Holyrood committee members, including Jackie Baillie, Murdo Fraser and Alex Cole-Hamilton, are perfecting their good cop, bad cop routines before the First Minister faces the big heat when she gives her evidence this month. Cue wavy screen:
Nicola Sturgeon is sitting alone in a room. It is entirely white, the paintwork tatty. A bare lightbulb swings, shadeless, above a worn and graffitied table. She can just about make out: “Henry McLeish woz here.” The only other item in the room is a photograph of the Queen, hanging at a squint. Someone has drawn a moustache on it.
Sturgeon has been there for some time, her solitude interrupted once by the delivery of a watery coffee by an unsmiling clerk. Any prospect of a calming cigarette is quickly lost. “You banned smoking indoors, remember?” says the clerk. “That was Jack,” Sturgeon mutters. “Though it is fun banning stuff.”
Eventually, the door opens and two men walk in. The first introduces himself only as Fraser, and gives her a look that would chill a Shetlander. The second wears what psychologists call an affiliative smile – lips closed, brow wrinkled, it is meant to say “trust me”. Sturgeon doesn’t trust him.
“This is my colleague Cole-Hamilton,” says Fraser. The other man nods, and again offers a little Lib-Demmy smile.
“We have some questions,” says Fraser, “and without some straight answers things may become a lot more rugged for you. That’s right, we’ll bring in Jackie.”
Cole-Hamilton interrupts. “Are you comfortable, First Minister? Would you like another coffee? I know this stuff isn’t great, and we’d normally send out to that lovely little bistro round the corner, but it went out of business during the first lockdown.” His eyes twinkle. “You were only doing your best, right? Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives, prepare for another referendum…”
Fraser clears his throat. “To business. That first meeting with Alex Salmond to discuss the allegations of sexual assault – was it a party matter or a government matter? You say one thing, your husband Peter suggests another.
“Salmond also claims you knew about the allegations before that meeting, because his chief of staff had told you. So there’s an issue with the timetable you’ve given, and with what you knew and when and…well, you didn’t keep any minutes. And you didn’t discuss any of this with Peter, even though you’re First Minister and he’s chief executive of the SNP? You must think we came up the Clyde on the Britannia.”
Sturgeon glares. It is a good glare. Fraser glares back. Cole-Hamilton emits what might have been a whimper, possibly fear, possibly excitement. “I’ve answered these questions already,” she says. “Don’t you think I’ve enough to be getting on with? Coronavirus, the economy, schools, the NHS, another indyre…I mean, another Holyrood election.”
Fraser smirks. “Calm down, First Minister. The thing is someone seems to be telling porkies and we are going to find out who. Oh, and so you know, Salmond is going to testify under oath that you repeatedly misled parliament.”
Sturgeon glares again.
Cole-Hamilton once again deploys what he believes is a complicit smile. Sturgeon imagines pulling his lurid yellow tie and twisting. She smiles.
“In a lot of ways, we’re doing you a favour, Nicola,” he says, edging further away than social distancing strictly dictates. “In fact, I’ve generously said as much in today’s papers. If I had been falsely accused of lying to parliament, I’d relish the chance to be formally exonerated.
“Your refusal to take it is baffling. Doubts will fester. It will only encourage division in your party and you’ll face questions at the daily Covid briefing and at Parliament. It will grow to become a monstrous distraction to you and your government.”
But that’s exactly what you want to happen, thinks Sturgeon, adding a little more glariness to her glare. However, he isn’t finished doing her a good turn. “Frankly, Nicola, it doesn’t look good. I’ve always found the idea this could end your premiership far-fetched, but it’s starting to look like you really might have something to hide.”
The First Minister’s glare becomes a gape. She thinks of how often she has demolished her rivals in parliament, tearing little tiny strips off the likes of Cole-Hamilton until they slowly sink to their seats in tatters. To think this is being driven by Salmond…and don’t get her started on those wreckers trying to take control of her party. As for Peter, well, when she gets home, he might get nostalgic for the time when they never spoke about work.
Sturgeon sighs slowly. “I want a lawyer,” she says.
“We thought you might,” smiles Fraser. He opens the door. “You can come in now, Ms Cherry.”
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