Alex Salmond will give evidence on Friday to the Scottish Parliamentary committee investigating how harassment procedures adopted by the Scottish Government came to be deemed unlawful at a cost of nearly £600,000 to the public purse.
The fallout from that event has led to a civil war within the SNP as the party’s two most significant leaders fight an increasingly bitter battle, which appeared to start in a dispute over process and is now a head-on clash over their respective integrity.
At one point in today’s exchanges at First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon accused the Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson of resting questions on “the altar of the ego of one man”. Yesterday, she accused her predecessor, Salmond, of peddling an “alternative reality”.
This is not just political, it is now personal. Assuming they can’t both be right about the events in question, this now looks like a fight ending in the shredding of one reputation.
Whatever comes out of the Holyrood committee inquiry or that being conducted by James Hamilton QC into whether the First Minster broke the ministerial code, it is now a certain bet that the opposition parties will use whatever ammunition may flow from these reports to make an election issue of Sturgeon’s conduct.
The focus of opposition attacks has shifted the longer this affair has dragged on. They have now broadened their concerns to ask why the Crown Office sought to redact Salmond’s evidence to the committee.
Ruth Davidson told MSPs on Thursday the redacted parts were the paragraphs that expose the First Minister, claiming that there was “a culture of secrecy and cover-up”, before asking: “Is saving your own skin worth all the damage that you are doing?”
Sturgeon was having none of it. Cover-up? She had actually explained her actions in a submission to the committee anyone can access on the web. Conspiracy? It was the opposition who have peddled that and in the process have sought to undermine confidence in the independence of the Crown Office.
Jackie Baillie for Labour always seems to needle the First Minister more. She is also pretty unflappable in pursuing her question even with attendant noises from the government benches.
She claimed the identity of one of the women making allegations was revealed at a meeting with Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein, which was “an extraordinary breach of confidentiality”. She wanted to know on whose authority the name of the complainer was revealed.
The First Minister seemed bemused that in pursuing this line, Baillie was accepting Salmond’s account as being beyond reproach. The Labour politician brought howls from the government benches with her assertion that there was “something rotten at the core of the SNP”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie pursued the same point. He said: “Jackie Baillie’s just made a very serious point about the handing of the name of a complainer over to Alex Salmond’s chief of staff”. He asked the First Minister to be clear that did not happen. Nicola Sturgeon replied “to the best of my knowledge I do not think that happened”.
So where does this week leave us?
Well, it means the noise around this, already pretty loud, just got louder. The role of the Crown Office has been questioned, too, with some MSPs believing their intervention has sought to censor Salmond’s evidence and limit scrutiny of it.
From the government’s point of view, their intervention has been entirely a matter for the independent office of Lord Advocate and was for legal reasons for which they are accountable.
Still, the allegations of conspiracy abound with those close to Salmond believing his criminal prosecution was rooted in concerted efforts to frame him for political reasons.
Now the best conspiracies are the ones that can be proved. I doubt the remit of the two existing inquiries is wide enough in scope to allow Salmond to put on record all of the evidence he says he has to prove the conspiracy. For that reason, I do not believe that the testimony he will give tomorrow will be the final word on all of this.
What has been noticeable this week is that Sturgeon has become increasingly bullish and has gone on the offensive. For much of the last couple of years, her tone has smacked of “more in sorrow than anger”. Not now. The gloves are off and some of her remarks this week are truly astonishing given that they are directed at her mentor and friend of 30 years.
She has also thrown down a challenge to Salmond. Show us the evidence of conspiracy. In short, put up or shut up.
In his long career culminating in leading the Yes side in the 2014 independence referendum, Salmond has argued for his beliefs and rolled with the punches that come with politics at a high level.
Rarely, if ever, has he had to fight for his reputation. When he takes the oath at 12.30pm tomorrow before MSPs, he has the opportunity, after a prolonged silence, to fight not for a cause but for himself.
The master of the big occasion needs a big performance as he finally gets the chance to put on the record why he believes his reputation has been traduced.