The Scottish National party’s chief executive, who is also the husband of party leader Nicola Sturgeon, was on Monday accused of giving “false information” under oath over details of a meeting between her and her predecessor as Scotland first minister, Alex Salmond.
Murdo Fraser, a Conservative member of the Scottish parliament committee investigating the government’s handling of harassment complaints against Salmond, accused Peter Murrell of not giving truthful information during a previous appearance to the committee in December. Murrell denied the accusation.
The extraordinary exchange during a virtual session of the committee on Monday morning highlighted growing pressure on Sturgeon over her response to the complaints against Salmond, who was in March 2020 acquitted at the High Court in Edinburgh of all of 13 sexual offence charges against him.
Salmond — who is locked in a stand-off with the committee over his conditions for appearing before it — has accused Sturgeon of not telling the truth when his former protégé told the Scottish parliament that she learnt about the civil service-led investigation into his conduct at the April 2018 meeting at her home.
Murrell told the committee in December he was not at home during the meeting between Sturgeon and Salmond and that he had not been “really aware” that the first minister would be visiting. He then said he had returned home before it ended and that he had been told by his wife in advance that her predecessor would be visiting that day.
“You were giving us false information having sworn to tell the truth,” Fraser told Murrell in a virtual session of the committee.
Speaking from the home he shares with Sturgeon, Murrell said he “absolutely” rejected the accusation. “I wasn’t here for any part of the meeting. I happened to arrive home just as the meeting was finishing,” he said, adding that he had not known in advance anything about why Salmond was visiting.
“I wasn’t aware that the meeting was for a purpose — I just thought he was popping in for a chat,” he said.
The April meeting has become a focus of attention because Sturgeon originally claimed it was then that she first learnt of the complaints against the former first minister.
In testimony to the committee published in October, the first minister said she had forgotten an encounter with her predecessor’s former chief aide in late March that might have touched on “allegations of a sexual nature”.
Allies of Salmond have suggested he was the victim of a conspiracy by allies of Sturgeon, an idea she has dismissed as a “heap of nonsense”.
Murrell was also pressed on Monday over messages between him and SNP party colleagues.
In December, the SNP chief executive said he very much regretted the wording of a 2019 text message in which he suggested it would be good to be “pressurising” police over accusations of sexual misconduct by Salmond. Murrell said then that he only meant that questions about the case should be referred to the police and the poor phrasing reflected his shock at the allegations.
On Monday, committee members asked Murrell about other reported messages between him and other SNP colleagues regarding the allegations, but he insisted the party had submitted all communications relevant to its inquiry.
Salmond has declined to attend a session of the committee on Tuesday over the Scottish parliament’s decision not to publish evidence he submitted to a separate investigation into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code.
Salmond’s lawyers told the committee on Sunday it was clear he could not accept a position where part of his evidence could not be used as a basis for its report. The former first minister would be willing to appear at “any point” if the committee addressed his concerns, they said.
A Scottish parliament spokesperson said discussions on the issue continued.
“Salmond had been contacted to make it clear that he can speak freely in committee about all of his contact with Nicola Sturgeon and his views on her actions,” the spokesperson said.
Sturgeon is expected to appear before the committee next Tuesday.
At her coronavirus briefing on Monday, she declined to discuss in detail her claim to have learnt about the complaints at the meeting with Salmond, but said she looked forward to appearing before the committee “at long last”.