A gritty drama of recrimination and revenge: Get set for Salmond, the season finale

THE days of selfies and stadiums filled with admiring supporters have never seemed more distant for the SNP hierarchy.

Tomorrow in a parliamentary committee room its future will be decided – by the man many Nationalists see as their spiritual leader.

Alex Salmond has waited almost a year for the opportunity to exact a very public revenge on his sometime protégée for allegedly trying to engineer his downfall.

As vendettas go, this is about as Sicilian as it gets: a simmering grudge about to burst into the open in a moment of spectacular, potentially history-making political theatre.

A little different, then, to the usual business of Holyrood committees – poring over obscure sub-clauses of ham-fisted legislation and interrogating clueless ministers.

It’s true that Mr Salmond has set out his stall long before now, and we know the thrust of his planned attack, but whatever you think of him he is a consummate tactician and showman – we won’t know exactly what he’ll say until he appears.

And by Holyrood terms it’ll be big box-office, streamed on the parliament’s online TV channel – you won’t even need a Netflix subscription.

But we shouldn’t be in any doubt about the significance of this extraordinary event: the man who spent most of his life working towards the goal of independence is so hell-bent on retribution that he’s prepared to scuttle the entire project.

A visionary hailed as the politician who would lead us into the brave new socialist nirvana of a breakaway Scotland now has a new priority: destroying his successor, whatever the collateral damage.

The SNP without Nicola Sturgeon at its helm is a much less formidable electoral force – so the implications for the future of the Union could be profound.

The pollsters, psephologists and political rune-readers will be watching closely, but for the rest of us this is Shakespearean stuff – highly charged human drama somewhere between King Lear and The Sopranos.

Or maybe in his own eyes Mr Salmond is the gunslinger swaggering into the saloon bar as the piano stops playing.

We should remember that at his trial last year the former First Minister – acquitted of a series of sex charges including attempted rape – gave evidence for nearly four hours, a marathon session in which he kept his cool under fire.

His stint in television, fronting a Kremlin-backed chat show, may also stand him in good stead as he takes his place before MSPs and takes aim at the woman who was once his loyal deputy.

But there’s no denying that – whatever the personal motivations and Machiavellian score-settling – this is an ugly and deeply unedifying episode.

To start with, we should remember that however he may see himself Mr Salmond, though cleared of any criminality, conceded that his own behaviour while he ran the government that later became his avowed enemy was hardly impeccable.

And at the heart of this saga are the stories of the women who made complaints about Mr Salmond’s allegedly inappropriate conduct, triggering a fatally flawed in-house sexual harassment probe.

When Mr Salmond challenged its legitimacy in court and emerged triumphant, taxpayers were saddled with a bill of more than £500,000 to pay his legal costs.

It was that humiliating defeat that – it’s alleged – led to a ‘get Salmond’ operation led by Miss Sturgeon or those in her inner sanctum.

In his strongly disputed version of events, they wanted to press the eject button on an unwanted backseat driver and so orchestrated a conspiracy to drive him from public life.

The Holyrood committee has been examining what went wrong in the handling of the government investigation into Mr Salmond – as it turns out, the answer is almost everything.

If this was a high-stakes plot cooked up by the Sturgeonistas, it was – perhaps predictably for anyone who has paid attention to how this regime works – a botched job, and the fallout was catastrophic.

(Sturgeon and Salmond: the schism at the heart of the SNP civil war)

The MSPs tasked with getting to the bottom of this mess have been wading through treacle, confronted with dead ends at every turn as documents they demanded from government failed to materialise.

Evidence gathered during the trial was prised out of the hands of the Crown Office after the committee deployed rarely used legal powers to force their disclosure.

A parade of Sir Humphrey-ish senior civil servants were summoned – but the inquiry, bar a few startling revelations, was characterised by obfuscation, evasion and redaction – to the extent that more than once it seemed some exhausted MSPs were on the verge of walking out.

Committee members dug in on party lines and the whole exercise was written off by many observers as a shambles that made a mockery of democratic accountability.

Mr Salmond U-turned on scheduled appearances in a long-running row over the parliament’s failure to publish his explosive submission, which accused Miss Sturgeon of misleading MSPs over her knowledge of the allegations against him.

When the legal obstacles were finally swept away, allowing the bombshell testimony to see the light of day, there were howls of outrage from the SNP, which even its former top spin doctor Kevin Pringle – a Salmond ally – described as ‘unwise’.

A parallel standards probe is deciding whether Miss Sturgeon did mislead MSPs – that would be a breach of the ministerial code which could make her resignation unavoidable.

All of the best blockbusters have sequels and so it will prove with this disaster movie, or perhaps it’s more of a horror – The Fall of the House of Sturgeon.

Once Mr Salmond has completed his evidence, it won’t be too long before Miss Sturgeon takes the stage for the season finale of these proceedings.

Whatever conclusion these investigations reach – and it’s entirely possible that a fudge is on the cards – someone will have to carry the can.

That’s why in recent days there have been reports that Leslie Evans, the government’s top mandarin, may be axed – turning her from head of the civil service into a human shield for the First Minister.

Her survival is key – even the most dim-witted of strategists can see that the pool of talent from which a possible replacement as leader would be drawn is on the shallow side.

These personnel decisions may not be as tricky as they seem – self-preservation is a powerful instinct.

It’s the principle focus of her closest advisers – Operation Save Nicola – and she may well brazen it out, but we shouldn’t rule out a surprise ending to this tawdry affair.

Even if she does cling on, her party and the wider independence movement are in the grip of factionalism.

If Mr Salmond doesn’t succeed in ousting the woman he groomed for leadership, it’s entirely possible she will become a casualty of internal warfare.

A political machine once renowned for its unfaltering discipline could tear itself apart in an orgy of blood-letting and bitter recrimination.

And the figure looking on from the side-lines will be the man who once brought it closer to the realisation of its overriding objective than any of its members ever dared to imagine.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on February 23, 2021.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper