Scotland’s Leader Is Under Pressure Before a Critical Election

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls from opponents to step down over a report by a parliamentary committee investigating her government’s mishandling of harassment complaints against her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Sky News and other U.K. media reported late on Thursday that the cross-party inquiry found she misled lawmakers when she gave evidence earlier this month. The Scottish Parliament said the committee was still finalizing its report and would publish its findings on March 23, a little over six weeks before a critical election.

The decision that Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, gave an inaccurate account was reached by a majority vote, Sky said. Significantly, the group of lawmakers didn’t conclude that she knowingly misled them, Sky said, without saying where it got the information.

A breach of the ministerial code of that nature normally would be a resignation matter. A second, independent inquiry by a former Irish director of public prosecutions is looking into whether Sturgeon broke the code.

“We have called out the first minister based on the overwhelming evidence that she misled parliament,” Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said. “We will continue to hold her to the same standards as previous first ministers of Scotland and demand that she resigns.”

Sturgeon stood by all eight hours of evidence she gave to the inquiry on March 3 and wasn’t surprised by the “partisan leak” of the findings. “What’s been clear is that the opposition members of this committee made their minds up about me before I’d uttered a single word of evidence,” she said.

Key Election

The verdict could have a major impact on Sturgeon and her party coming just weeks before local elections. Opinion polls are already showing a slip in support for the SNP as the increasingly acrimonious dispute between Sturgeon and Salmond, the two figureheads of the Scottish independence movement, takes its toll.

The Opinium survey for Sky News published earlier on Thursday gave the SNP a 22 percentage-point lead over the Conservatives. That would translate into 64 seats in the Edinburgh legislature, it said, one short of the majority the party is seeking to exert pressure on the British government to grant another referendum on independence.

Salmond told lawmakers on Feb. 26 there was collusion at the top of the Scottish establishment to purge him from public life and accused the government of a failure of leadership.

He was acquitted by a court last year of sexual assault against women. A judge earlier had ruled that the way the government had investigated the claims had been unlawful. Sturgeon rejected claims of a conspiracy when she appeared at the committee.

The Labour Party’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, said if she is found to have broken the rules on conduct she must go. “The code which the first minister has promised to follow by the letter is clear -- any minister who is found in breach of the ministerial code has a duty to resign.”

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