With his sad eyes, Salmond had something of poor Tony Hancock about him

Alex Salmond was at the Scottish affairs committee for almost three hours. In all that time he uttered the name ‘Nicola Sturgeon’ not once.

MPs kept mentioning her but the old bruin himself would not spit out the dread syllables. Actors fear a hex if they say ‘Macbeth’. Harry Potter characters avoid mentioning the dark lord Voldemort.

Maybe Mr Salmond feared something similar; or perhaps, despite posing as a great statesman de nos jours, Big Eck is still gnawed by small-town hatred for Mr Sturgeon, the one-time deputy who in 2014 succeeded him as Scotland’s first minister and proceeded to disown him.

I wandered down the corridor just behind Mr Salmond and his small retinue arriving for this 10am meeting. He has acquired the gait of a corpulent penguin, feet splayed at ten-to-two, his jacket (possibly not Savile Row) bulging at the hems. The entourage trailed clouds of musky pomade. A Commons orderly, seeing all this waddling grandeur, shot me a wink and laughed.

A jowly Salmond announced he had flown in from Berlin, having the previous evening supped with former UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, Bob Geldof and Sharon Stone. One hopes Ban, Bob and Sharon got their share of the boiled potatoes. Mr Salmond explained they had been at an international peace conference.

Alex Salmond at the Scottish affairs committee yesterday

Alex Salmond at the Scottish affairs committee yesterday

Yes, one of the punchiest parliamentarians of our age has become a peacemaker.

Pete Wishart (SNP, Perth) countered glumly: ‘And I had dinner with Alan Brown.’ Mr Brown (SNP, Kilmarnock) has an impenetrable accent. He makes Mr Wishart sound like Donald Sinden. If you dine with Mr Brown and he orders soup, you might want to wear a macintosh.

The committee was looking at ‘intergovernmental relations’, chiefly between London and Edinburgh. Mr Salmond disclosed that when he became first minister he heard nothing from ‘Sir Anthony Blair’, then PM. Once Gordon Brown took over, things improved. David Cameron was even warmer. Sir Anthony was just ‘upset, really miffed’ that Labour had lost the 2007 Scottish elections.

Scotland's former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Scotland’s former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Mr Salmond was equipped with one small sheet of notepaper, possibly from his Berlin hotel bedroom. Behind him sat two aides: Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a former MP who has become his inseparable amanuensis, and a thickset chap in the sort of three-piece suit seen at point-to-points. This fellow wore, on the fourth finger of his right hand, an enormous knuckleduster. When Mr Salmond came under brisk interrogation from Douglas Ross (Con, Moray), Mr Knuckleduster started grunting in a menacing way.

Yet his master was in playful, expansive mood, eager to portray himself the wise elder, a grandee of power-politics. Mr Salmond dispensed advice, did slightly too much chuckling and merely toyed with Mr Ross’s barbs.

His enormous hams rested full-square on a chair that creaked. He twiddled his stubby thumbs. With round, sad eyes and two black beetles for eyebrows, he had about him something of poor Tony Hancock, had he only lived.

We heard of Mr Salmond’s ‘personal friendship’ with China’s ex premier Li and of the time he was admitted into the ‘leadership compound’ in Beijing. (The SNP has something similar in Edinburgh’s Oxgangs, one gathers.) Mr Salmond yarned about the days he’d chat to Hillary Clinton and to the president of the European Commission and ‘a whole variety of other leaders’, back when politics was big. It was only a little unfortunate, perhaps, that Michael Shanks (Lab, Rutherglen) reminded him that these days he now scratches a few bob working for the national TV channel of lovely Mr Erdogan’s Turkey.

Talking of which dictator, we returned to Ms Sturgeon. Mr Salmond, still refusing to speak her name, rubbished her leadership skills, kebabed her former chief of staff and let the possibility float –‘that’s for them to clarify…’ – that Ms Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney may have lied to the Covid inquiry while on oath.

Asked if he had advice for tomorrow’s leaders, he concluded: ‘Don’t rely on your old chums. Your enemies sometimes sit alongside you.’

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