John Swinney discloses Alex Salmond legal advice after caving in over no confidence vote threat

Simon JohnsonMon, 1 March 2021, 7:33 pm

John Swinney has promised to publish the Scottish Government's legal advice from Alex Salmond's judicial review case -  Getty Images Europe
John Swinney has promised to publish the Scottish Government’s legal advice from Alex Salmond’s judicial review case – Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy is to finally hand over the SNP government’s “key” secret legal advice for Alex Salmond’s judicial review after he faced being forced to resign if he refused.

John Swinney caved in to opposition demands for the advice to be published after a majority of MSPs swung behind a Tory motion of no confidence in him, which could have been voted on this afternoon.

In a humiliating about-turn, he said he had decided to release the advice “to counter the false claims being made by some.” He said it would be provided to parliament “immediately” after legal notifications are issued to “individuals impacted.”

Mr Swinney was in danger of losing his job after Ms Sturgeon – who appears tomorrow (weds) before the Holyrood inquiry investigating the scandal – recused herself from the legal advice decision.

The First Minister did not appear at the Scottish Government’s Monday Covid briefing for the first time this year amid claims she was closeted away with her legal team ahead of her appearance.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory, welcomed Mr Swinney’s about-turn after the Deputy First Minister ignored two previous votes by MSPs for the advice to be given to the inquiry.

However, he said Mr Swinney had only acted “to save his own skin” and warned “he must go further and fully publish the legal advice or we will not hesitate to force him out.”

The Scottish Government announcement referred only to “key” advice.

Miles Briggs, the Scottish Tories’ chief whip, said he would not withdraw the motion until MSPs are given assurances that everything the committee has demanded is handed over.

Mr Salmond has alleged the advice proves SNP ministers continued to fight the judicial review case despite being warned they were likely to lose at huge cost to the public purse. This is a potential breach of the ministerial code, also a resignation matter.

In a marathon six-hour evidence session last Friday, he told the inquiry examining the debacle that ministers only conceded the case after the external counsel they appointed threatened to quit.

Mr Salmond won the judicial review in 2019 when Scotland’s highest civil court found that the way the Scottish Government investigated sexual misconduct allegations against him was unlawful.

The SNP administration he once led paid him £512,250 of taxpayers’ money to cover his legal costs after the judge Lord Pentland ruled the inquiry was “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias”.

The case was abandoned on the eve of a Court of Session hearing after the government admitted it had breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had “prior involvement” with two civil servants who had made complaints.

The committee’s inquiry into the debacle was kickstarted after when Mr Salmond was acquitted of sexual assault charges at the High Court last year.

It will hear on Tuesday morning from Lord Advocate James Wolffe, Crown Agent David Harvie and Alex Prentice QC, the Principal Crown Counsel.

Mr Swinney has previously told the inquiry he was keen to find a “practical way” for the legal advice to be handed over. However, this had yet to happen and the Scottish Tories gave him 24 hours on Sunday to deliver it.

The impasse was broken when the deadline passed and the Conservatives submitted a one-line motion stating that Holyrood had no confidence in Mr Swinney.

Anas Sarwar, the new Scottish Labour leader, joined the Liberal Democrats and independent MSP Andy Wightman in giving his backing to the Tory motion. The Scottish Greens then gave their support, giving it a Holyrood majority.

The Deputy First Minister said: “In normal circumstances, government legal advice is not released. Indeed, such is the importance of being able to get frank, private advice, it is almost unheard of for the legal advice to be released.

“But, we have to acknowledge that the issues at stake now are not normal. The very integrity of the legal system is being questioned. Serious allegations have been made. This material allows people to confirm that these allegations are false.”

He said the “substance of the advice” had already been shared privately with the committee but “we recognise that in order to counter the false claims being made by some, we must go further.”

Alex Salmond appearing before the Holyrood inquiry last Friday - PA
Alex Salmond appearing before the Holyrood inquiry last Friday – PA

Jackie Baillie, a Labour committee member, said: “This screeching U-turn from John Swinney may well be a cynical move to save his job, but it is very welcome nonetheless.

“The Committee particularly wants to see external counsel’s advice from when they were first engaged in August – and it must come without any redactions tomorrow.”

The motion was lodged as the committee conducting the inquiry held talks over formally requesting a cache of documents from Mr Salmond’s solicitors that he claimed proved there was a “malicious” plot against him.

A majority of the committee supports the move, which was suggested by Mr Salmond in his closing remarks of his six-hour evidence session on Friday as a means of circumventing the Scottish Government and Crown Office.

The formal demand was expected yesterday but was delayed over concerns whether it would be legal for the information to be handed over. Ms Baillie insisted that it would be.