Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon defeats no-confidence bid after scandal

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been the public face of independence and opposition to Brexit.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been the public face of independence and opposition to Brexit.PHOTO: REUTERS

EDINBURGH (AFP) - Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon survived a no-confidence vote in parliament Tuesday (March 23) and vowed not to give in to “bully” tactics as she readies for a new drive to split the nation from the United Kingdom.

The motion brought by Scotland’s opposition Conservatives was rejected by 65-31 votes with 27 abstentions.

The vote came after a Scottish parliamentary committee investigating an explosive sexual harassment scandal involving Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, found that it had been misled by testimony from the first minister.

But the panel deferred to another probe by a senior independent lawyer who reported Monday that Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code, effectively clearing the way for her to survive the no-confidence vote and lead her party into elections in May.

The row involving the two biggest names in the independence movement has dominated Scottish politics in recent years, with indications it has undermined popular support for Scotland to go its own way.

But Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) is hoping that with the investigations and parliamentary manoeuvres over, a strong showing in May will bolster its case for a second referendum on independence.

“If you think you can bully me out of office, you are mistaken,” she told lawmakers ahead of the vote. “If you want to remove me as first minister, do it in an election.

“It is the confidence of the people of Scotland that matters most, and the confidence of the people is what I will seek to demonstrate and seek to win in the weeks that lie ahead.”

After Sturgeon was cleared in the independent probe on Monday, the SNP submitted legislation seeking to hold a new independence plebiscite by the end of 2023.

‘Fundamental contradiction’

A previous vote in 2014 saw Scots opt to remain part of the union, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to allow a second referendum.

But the SNP argues that the UK’s Brexit departure from the European Union – which most Scots opposed – has dramatically changed the political calculus.

If a majority in the Scottish Parliament supports another referendum after the May elections, there will be “no democratic justification whatsoever” for Johnson to block it, SNP Constitution Secretary Michael Russell said.

Salmond, who was first minister from 2007 to 2014, was cleared of all charges at a criminal trial last year, and says the accusations were politically motivated by his successor’s team.

He accused Sturgeon, his former friend and protegee, of a failure of leadership, charging that she breached the ministerial code governing behaviour and conduct.

Before the criminal trial, a civil court found the government probe into the complaints was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.

Salmond, 66, was awarded more than £500,000 in legal costs.

While senior lawyer James Hamilton cleared Sturgeon on Monday, the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints committee ruled separately that there was a “fundamental contradiction in the evidence” she gave.

It was investigating what she knew and when about the allegations against Salmond, her government’s handling of the complaints, and whether she offered to intervene on his behalf.

The SNP say the committee’s findings were stacked against her by an opposition majority on the panel.