A laser focus on maintaining unity has been the essence of the SNP’s success as an election-winning force over the last decade.
But as its two most high-profile figures – first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, and her predecessor Alex Salmond – engage in open warfare, is this the beginning of the end for the SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics?
Bitter division between the two over the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints threatens to pull apart the SNP just weeks ahead of the Holyrood elections in May.
As Nicola Sturgeon gives evidence at an inquiry on Wednesday, here is everything you need to know about the political crisis north of the border.
Salmond served as first minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014, when he resigned after voters backed No in the independence referendum and Sturgeon succeeded him.
The current saga started in 2018 when the Scottish government launched an investigation into two allegations of sexual harassment made by two civil servants against Salmond.
The allegations dated back to when Salmond was first minister and the government probe was allowed under rules established in the wake of the Me Too movement, which meant for the first time that older complaints could be investigated. This extension has been seen by some as deliberately targeting Salmond, which Sturgeon denies.
Salmond denied wrongdoing and brought legal action against the government, saying the investigation was “unjust” after it turned out the investigating officer had previously had contact with the complainers.
Salmond won the judicial review in 2019, with Edinburgh’s court of session concluding the government had acted unlawfully during the process and ordering that it cover Salmond’s £500,000 legal fees. It emerged this week that the Scottish government’s own lawyers had warned that it was unlikely to win the judicial review, despite which it continued with the case.
Top civil servant Leslie Evans admitted the process had been “tainted by apparent bias”.
At a subsequent criminal trial in 2020, Salmond faced charges of 14 sexual offence charges and was acquitted.
He has alleged Sturgeon misled parliament over what she knew about the allegations and when – and therefore that she breached the ministerial code.
What happened after Salmond’s criminal trial?
Two inquiries were established to examine Sturgeon’s, and the Scottish government’s, handling of the investigation.
The first minister referred herself for investigation under the ministerial code. James Hamilton QC is looking at whether she breached rules that govern the behaviour of ministers.
There is a question mark over when she learned of the allegations and whether she misled parliament and interfered in the investigation, all of which are questions Hamilton’s inquiry must answer.
Sturgeon initially told MSPs she first became aware of the allegations during a meeting with Salmond in her home on April 2, 2018.
But she later admitted she had had a meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, on March 29, after details emerged in a Sky News report.
She later told MSPs she had “forgotten” this information.
What has made this meeting especially controversial is that it no record of it or what was said during it, was kept, despite the ministerial code stating all the FM’s meetings be logged and detailed.
Sturgeon says the two discussed party business, but it is claimed she and Aberdein actually discussed government matters at her home, which may be a further breach of the code.
Sturgeon has said she should face “full scrutiny”, but has said: “I do not consider that I misled parliament – but that is of course for others to judge.”
This probe carries the most risk for Sturgeon’s leadership. It is ongoing and may not report for some time.
What is happening now?
The second inquiry investigating the Scottish government’s handling of the complaints is led by a Holyrood committee.
A number of senior figures have appeared before MSPs in recent days, including – following a long legal wrangle over whether his written evidence would be published – Salmond himself and Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP.
During his evidence, Salmond hit out at several Scottish government figures he alleged conspired against him during the investigation.
Among others, he called for Evans, the government’s permanent secretary, Peter Murrell, SNP chief executive and husband of the first minister, and Sturgeon’s chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, to resign.
He claimed there was a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” by these individuals to “damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned”.
Murrell has faced accusations from opposition MSPs of misleading the inquiry about his knowledge of meetings between Salmond and Sturgeon. It is also claimed he applied pressure for Salmond to face a criminal investigation.
Addressing the inquiry, Salmond alleged Sturgeon had breached the ministerial code but stopped short of calling for her resignation, saying it was not for him to decide.
On Tuesday evening the government published a series of emails that showed its lawyers were “very concerned indeed” about the case in October 2018 and had said the government would likely lose a review of its handling of the complaints against Salmond.
The lawyers advised the government to admit defeat by December 6 yet it did not do so until January 2019, by which time it had racked up hundred of thousands of pounds in legal fees as well as having to pay Salmond’s costs of £500,000.
The personal enmity between Sturgeon and Salmond – who together formed arguably the most successful political partnership Scottish politics has ever seen – is visceral.
Before the inquiry, Sturgeon used a first minister’s questions session to accuse Salmond of a “scorched earth” attack on the country’s political institutions, while accusing her critics of sacrificing their principles on the “altar of the ego of one man”.
Asked during his committee evidence if he had forgiven Sturgeon, Salmond replied “no”.
His claim that Scotland’s governance is not fit for independence – “Scotland hasn’t failed, its leadership has failed” – also threatens to damage Sturgeon’s support with the independence movement.
If the Hamilton Inquiry concludes that Sturgeon has broken the ministerial code, she will face pressure from within her party and opponents to stand down.
Separately, if Hamilton and the committee find senior figures in the government or SNP to be at fault, others may also face pressure to resign.
Will Sturgeon have to resign?
Support for Scottish independence has hit record highs (58%) in recent months, with many praising the FM’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The Holyrood elections are due to take place in May and Sturgeon has published an 11-point roadmap to securing a second independence referendum.
There are three possible outcomes to the current crisis for Sturgeon in the months ahead.
Firstly, if the Hamilton Inquiry concludes that she broke ministerial code, she will come under intense pressure to resign. It is not yet known if she would resist.
If she goes, a successor will have to be found and the Scottish Tories have already begun moves to oust deputy first minister John Swinney, who is separately under attack over what legal advice was withheld from the committee.
Secondly, if Hamilton finds no evidence of a rule breach, the Holyrood committee may still criticise senior figures in the government and SNP.
In this scenario, allies of Sturgeon, such as Murrell, Lloyd or Evans may be forced to leave their posts. The first minister’s authority would suffer a serious blow as a result.
Finally, both Hamilton and the committee could back the Scottish government and FM.
In this situation Sturgeon would likely stay in post for the May elections, which, despite the deep divisions, the SNP remain on course to win handsomely.
Sturgeon’s internal critics want the party to ramp up demands for a second referendum and dislike her step-by-step approach.
They fear this outcome would allow the FM, who has sought to make the case for independence alongside other policy issues, to say the public supports her leadership.
Whatever happens, it seems unlikely that Sturgeon and her inner circle will survive the crisis completely unscathed, especially as the judicial review, which saw Salmond awarded some £512,000 in costs, has already found the government to be at fault.
What does it mean for the SNP and independence?
It remains to be seen whether the inquiries will get cut through with voters but this internecine war will undoubtedly change the SNP.
The party’s factionalism has been kept in one tent for the past decade.
But those wars look set to burst into the open – for example, those between the “gradualists”, who favour more devolution and a slow path to independence, and the “fundamentalists”, who say the SNP must always defend and support its central policy for it to be seen as credible.
Factionalism has torn apart Labour and the Conservative Party in recent years.
Salmond could return to politics as part of a rival pro-independence party. What his next move will be is not clear.
Sturgeon has already moved against his allies in the SNP, however, with a shake-up of the Westminster team, which saw Joanna Cherry, Kenny MacAskill and Angus MacNeil removed from Ian Blackford’s front bench.
While other policy issues, such as how the SNP should advocate for trans rights, were said to be behind the decision, all three had defended Salmond.
Despite huge support in the polls, frustration with Sturgeon’s approach is also building as the party’s grassroots think Boris Johnson will always say no to requests for a second referendum.
One party source told HuffPost UK: “Nicola is a very orthodox politician who is never going to take a risk.
“The people who do the groundwork delivering the leaflets are getting very impatient and they are asking: ‘If not now, when?’”
Activists believe “we should be using this election in May to basically secure a mandate to enter into independence negotiations”, they added, saying the 11-point plan was “about smoke and mirrors”.
“The raison d’etre of the SNP is to achieve independence. If we can’t deliver that then naturally people will be looking to see who can,” they said.
But allies of Sturgeon say the Scottish government must be trusted to deliver, and point to her stewardship of the country during the pandemic.
They also underline the polls.
The latest, by Ipsos Mori, predicts that the SNP will win 72 of the 129 seats in Holyrood, nine more than they have now. It would give the party an outright majority of 15.
The poll also said the Tories are expected to fall to 26 seats, while Scottish Labour dropped to 17. The Lib Dems and pro-independence Greens were also forecast to make gains.
Though other parties are struggling to make gains, independence advocates fear low turnout amid the division can be used to reject calls for a new vote.
All of which means that how Sturgeon handles the next few months will be critical for politics north of the border.