Nicola Sturgeon’s most trusted minister faces losing his job over his refusal to hand over secret documents about the Alex Salmond affair, after it emerged pro-independence MSPs are considering forcing his resignation.
A no confidence vote in John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, could be lodged as early as next week if opposition politicians conclude he will not publish legal advice received by the Scottish Government about a judicial review launched by Mr Salmond which ended up costing taxpayers more than £500,000.
Crucially, the Scottish Greens, who often back the SNP in crunch votes, are understood to be open to supporting a no confidence motion on the basis that Mr Swinney’s actions are obstructing legitimate parliamentary scrutiny.
A majority of MSPs voted for a second time this week for the government to publish the legal advice it received about a legal challenge brought by Mr Salmond, in which he disputed the legality of a civil service probe into sexual harassment complaints against him.
Mr Salmond won the case after the Government conceded it days before full hearings were due to get underway. The legal advice is seen as crucial as ministers have been accused of pursuing the case at public expense, despite being warned there was little prospect of success, due to a politically-motivated vendetta against the former First Minister.
Challenged at Holyrood on Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon once again refused to commit to publishing the advice.
MSPs see issuing votes of no confidence as the next step in a rapidly escalating row between Government and Parliament. It is believed that Mr Swinney is the most likely target, with some opposition MSPs of the view that James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate, is being used by Ms Sturgeon and her deputy as “a human shield”.
A Scottish Greens source told The Daily Telegraph: “The ideal scenario would be that we would get the legal advice before it came to that [a no confidence vote].
“But given it's been three weeks since the first vote, we don't know what the Government is playing at. More discussion is needed, but a no confidence vote has been mentioned and we are certainly open to supporting it."
Mr Swinney survived a no confidence vote in the summer, only the fourth in the 21 year history of Holyrood, over his handling of the exams fiasco after striking a deal with the Greens. However, there is little room for compromise over the release of the legal advice, which MSPs have been demanding for months.
They are investigating a botched civil service probe into complaints of sexual misconduct into Mr Salmond, which a judge ruled was “tainted by apparent bias”. He was cleared of 13 sexual assault charges at a trial in March, following a separate criminal investigation, and has always denied any criminality.
— Murdo Fraser (@murdo_fraser) November 26, 2020
Ms Sturgeon previously promised that the Holyrood inquiry would have access to any documents it requested. However, she has reneged on the pledge and delegated responsibility to Mr Swinney.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the LibDem MSP, said: "At this time the Deputy First Minister remains in open defiance of the will of Parliament.
“That can't be allowed to continue and the chamber may wish to assert its supremacy over ministers by testing the confidence members have in his continuing in that role."
Meanwhile, Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader who is standing for election to Holyrood in May, was dragged into the affair on Thursday after the committee wrote to him asking for evidence.
Seen as an ally to Ms Sturgeon, he was asked by Linda Fabiani, the SNP convenor of the committee, what he knew about allegations or formal complaints against Mr Salmond and whether this was shared “within senior figures” in the SNP to “inform its consideration of the Scottish Government's handling of complaints”.
Allies of Mr Salmond maintain that he was the victim of a politically-motivated plot launched by his former SNP allies, aimed at preventing him from making a political comeback.
At Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tory Holyrood group, said the only reason for refusing to hand over the legal advice was that Ms Sturgeon had “something to hide”.
Responding, Ms Sturgeon said Mr Swinney was considering publishing the legal advice, but to do so prematurely, without due process, would break the ministerial code.
While there is a presumption that governments do not publish legal advice, this can be overridden in exceptional circumstances and SNP ministers have published it before in other cases.
The First Minister added: “The Government is not ignoring the votes in Parliament. As a result of the votes in Parliament, the Government is going through the process that is required before legal advice can be divulged.”