I am here this week to take a closer look at how the case for independence is going, and whether this week’s mess over EU membership has finally taken the shine off the SNP’s charismatic leader, Alex Salmond.
The SNP was left embarrassed earlier this week when it admitted it had not, contrary to what ministers had appeared to say previously, sought legal advice on whether Scotland could remain a member of the EU.
Asked on the BBC in March whether he had been given this advice from his own Scottish law officers, Salmond had said: “We have, yes, in terms of the debate.” He then went on to say he could not “reveal the legal advice of law officers”.
When Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader, admitted earlier this week that no such legal advice existed, Salmond insisted his initial comments had been taken out of context, with 27 words having been omitted from the quote widely attributed to him.
In that context, the first question by Labour leader Johann Lamont, was artfully phrased:
Starting his answer with, ‘We have, yes’, could the first minister get to, ‘No, we haven’t', in 27 words?
Salmond started his answer, as he started almost all subsequent answers, by referring to the ministerial code, which he said forbade him from revealing whether or not he had actively sought legal advice on the issue. What he was referring to in the March interview with the BBC, he claimed, was the fact that no legal officer had raised queries about other documents which referenced Scotland’s continued membership of the EU – and not to any positive endorsement of the SNP position.
The debate danced on this pinhead for much of the session, but the joint tack taken by Lamont and Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader, was telling. Lamont said:
The reality is the first minister will say anything to get through the moment. He then asks us to take his answers on trust. Doesn’t he realise after this that nobody trusts him?
Davidson followed up, saying:
The inescapable truth is that neither the first minister or his deputy can be trusted to tell the truth. The people of Scotland simply can’t believe what he says.
And that is the issue here. None of what was said during FMQs was a killer blow: do not expect Salmond’s resignation on the back of this. But the other parties hope that it will help build a narrative of both Salmond and Sturgeon as untrustworthy. In doing so, they are building on the impression created by the Sun on Wednesday. The Scottish version of the paper, which supported the SNP in 2011, and has come close to supporting the cause of independence, was stark in its judgement: “EU Liar”.