Today will be, without doubt, the toughest day of Nicola Sturgeon’s political career. Her ministerial future is on the line and she has become the sole focus of attention at Holyrood.
At issue is the letter of support Ms Sturgeon wrote to a sheriff lobbying on behalf of a serial benefit fraudster.
The Deputy First Minister wrote a letter of support for Abdul Rauf before he was due to be sentenced for defrauding £80,000 from the Department of Work and Pensions.
She referred to Rauf’s crimes, including a previous conviction for stealing £60,000, as “mistakes” and appealed for alternatives to custody for Rauf.
When the story broke yesterday, Ms Sturgeon insisted she had done nothing wrong. On the contrary, she claimed she was duty-bound to represent a constituent.
Labour, though, claimed this was a resigning matter and that the letter showed Ms Sturgeon’s lack of judgement.
Labour MP Ian Davidson said: “This kind of behaviour gives the green light to benefit thieves. Nicola Sturgeon should be ashamed of herself for saying there should be virtually no penalty for people who rob the benefits system.
“When public money is scarce we should not be doing anything to encourage people to defraud the benefits system. People expect politicians to crack down on benefit fraud, not encourage it. People will stare in disbelief at what has happened.”
So who is right, Labour or the SNP? Should Ms Sturgeon resign or, more pertinently, will she have to resign whether she should do so or not?
The first point to consider here is that this is not an isolated incident as far as accusations of lack of judgement is concerned.
As Labour have taken no hesitation to point out, Alex Salmond lobbied the Home Secretary last month for an illegal immigrant facing drugs charges to stay in Scotland.
And just this week both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond have faced intense criticism over their decision to auction off lunches with themselves in the Scottish Parliament restaurant to raise money for party funds.
All of this paints a picture of poor judgment, lack of objectivity and political naivete, none of which would be enough to force a resignation on its own but could easily lead to a resignation of anything more appears in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Ms Sturgeon is facing the toughest day of her political career firstly because she is at the centre of a Holyrood storm with opponents calling for her resignation but also because she has now the entire press pack – with Sunday journalists leading the race – searching for any possible link between her and Rauf.
The SNP insist he is not a party member and has not donated money to the party but he could be a member of Scots Asians for Independence or have family members who are party members. If anything along these lines emerged, then the pressure would intensify on the Deputy First Minister.
If, however, Ms Sturgeon manages to ride out today and, of equal importance, ride out the Sunday papers too, then she will probably survive in her job.
One thing she can be sure of, though, is the support of the First Minister. Mr Salmond may be hopping mad at her judgement in private because it has given the opposition something to beat the Scottish Government with, but he will be fiercely loyal in public.
Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon are close allies but, more than that, the First Minister will fight as hard as he can to prevent his opponents from forcing his deputy out of office.
So, will Ms Sturgeon quit over this? At the moment, she appears able to ride this one out but everything hinges on how this story develops. If there are any more major developments, she may have to go. Either way, we should all know the answer by Sunday morning.
One little twist, though, which is worth keeping an eye on is the use of government special advisers to help Ms Sturgeon clear up this mess.
Senior special advisers were involved last night in briefing the press on what is, ostensibly, a party matter. That is a grey area and the special advisers will probably get away with this even though they appear to have been treading on to this territory.
But what their involvement does is give the opposition the chance to raise this issue at First Minister’s Questions.
If this was purely a party matter for Ms Sturgeon’s Glasgow constituency then Mr Salmond could dodge all the questions he is bound to face today by saying it has nothing to do with him.
However, the use of his government’s special advisers gives the opposition a way of involving the First Minister and his government, bringing the questions into the First Minister’s remit.
The text of Ms Sturgeon’s letter
3rd February 2010
For the Attention of the Court;
MR ABDUL RAUF
I refer to my above named constituent and the case brought against him for benefit fraud.
I have been aware of Mr Rauf’s case since July 2008 when he sought assistance from me after a search warrant was executed at his home by the Department of Work and Pensions and officers from Strathclyde Police. It was clear at that time that he recognised the serious nature of the matter he was facing and that it would be necessary to pay back the money he had obtained unlawfully.
For a number of years Mr Rauf has suffered from poor health mainly associated with his heart; he has a family, including young children aged under ten; and he is heavily involved in his community. All of these aspects of his life have been significantly impacted upon by the mistake he has made.
Mr Rauf has accepted his wrongdoing and has experienced the consequences of it through the effect on his health, the distress caused to his family and the impact on his standing in his community. He has advised me that he has already paid £27,000 of the outstanding balance owed to the Department of Work and Pensions and has said, since he first sought my advice, that he will sell his interest in his property in Edinburgh to settle the remaining balance.
He and his wife are anxious that a custodial sentence may be imposed by the court and of the further affect this will have on Mr Rauf’s health and the impact on family life. I would appeal to the court to take the points raised here into account and consider alternatives to a custodial sentence.
NICOLA STURGEON MSP
Member for Glasgow Govan