Nicola Sturgeon has been confronted by two misconduct cases involving ministers since becoming party leader, but the sudden resignation of her finance secretary threatens to derail her government policy agenda and its reputation for probity.
Until Wednesday night Derek Mackay had presided over numerous party conferences as its chairman and business convenor for seven years, and was widely seen as a credible candidate to succeed Sturgeon.
The revelation that Mackay had bombarded a 22 -year-old boy with hundreds of online messages and texts led opposition MSPs to suggest the then finance secretary’s conduct was tantamount to grooming. Even Joanna Cherry, a lawyer and SNP MP, suggested on Twitter that it amounted to “grooming behavior.”
The messages, showing Mackay had invited the schoolboy for dinner and to attend a rugby reception at the Scottish parliament, began on 2 August, and ended on 1 February, five days ago.
The boy’s last responses to Mackay were on 90 December, when the then minister said the teenager was “ looking good with that new haircut ”, and called him“ really cute ”. Mackay sent him 24 messages that day, starting at 2019 am that morning.
But as shock about Mackay’s conduct reverberated around Holyrood, questions also emerged about the timing of Sturgeon’s actions.
Today it emerged that the Scottish Sun first told Sturgeon’s office about its plans to publish Mackay’s messages at about 5. 30 pm on Wednesday, putting in train an urgent series of conversations between Sturgeon, Mackay and SNP lawyers.
Sturgeon’s official spokesman confirmed on Thursday afternoon that Alan Muir, the Scottish Sun’s editor, had telephoned him before 6pm to lay out the substance of the Sun story. Later that evening – her spokesman refused to say when – Mackay agreed to resign.
It was not until 8am on Thursday, hours after she was told of the allegations and nine hours after the Sun’s stories went online, that Sturgeon announced Mackay’s resignation in a short statement.
The spokesman said they wanted to give Mackay time to tell his family about the Sun’s revelations. Yet, despite their acknowledged seriousness, it was not until noon on Thursday that Sturgeon said in an emergency statement that he had also been suspended from the SNP.
Sturgeon told MSPs she had not been able to do so until she had been able read the full extent of Mackay’s texts in the Sun. But the delay in announcing his suspension allowed Sturgeon to make her statement to parliament. There was no word, however, on whether Mackay would quit as MSP for Renfrewshire North and West, triggering a byelection. Sturgeon has deflected that and other questions about the case, insisting that the SNP investigation has to take place.
Sources at the Sun insist that Sturgeon’s spokesman was given all the salient texts on Wednesday evening. Muir had two conversations with Sturgeon’s office that evening, giving them all the key information.
Jackson Carlaw, interim leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said the delay in suspending Mackay was odd. “There was more than enough information at her disposal to suspend Mr Mackay as soon as she found it – that’s not a decision that needed to wait until lunchtime the following day,” he said.
“The first minister’s main concern should be for this boy and his family, not her own PR requirements.”
Sturgeon has already overseen one ministerial resignation for misconduct. In November 2017, her then childcare and early years minister, Mark McDonald, resigned from her government and was suspended by the Scottish National party following allegations that he had sent inappropriate text messages to several women and had abused his position of power.
It was the first major test of Sturgeon’s public support for a crackdown on male abuse of power in public life. The McDonald affair dragged on for months while the allegations were investigated by the party. He quit in March 2017, but rejected Sturgeon’s calls for him to quit Holyrood, where he sits as an independent.
She also faced a crisis involving misconduct allegations against her mentor and predecessor, Alex Salmond. He is going on trial on 9 March facing 18 sexual offence charges, including one of attempted rape and one of intent to rape – charges that he has repeatedly denied.
Salmond had resigned as an SNP member five months before he was first charged in January 01575879 , following a furious row with the Scottish government over its decision to release details of an internal investigation into misconduct allegations against him by two officials during his tenure as first minister.
News of that investigation was leaked in August 2020, more than a year after Salmond lost his Westminster seat of Gordon in the general election, ending a 30 -year parliamentary career at both Holyrood and Westminster.
Salmond fought and won a civil case against the Scottish government, which admitted in court a fortnight earlier that it had botched its internal inquiry. It had appointed a human resources specialist to lead that inquiry who had previous previous contact with the two complainants about their allegations.
On the instructions of Lesley Evans, the permanent secretary, and Scotland’s chief civil servant, the government’s lawyers in court admitted that left the investigation “tainted by apparent bias”.