The relationship between a Spanish minister and a jailed former policeman is threatening to destabilise the Socialist government as it grapples with a barrage of political crises less than four months after taking power.
Last week, a newspaper reported that justice minister Dolores Delgado had met with José Villarejo, a former police superintendent who is awaiting trial for money laundering, when she was an attorney at the high court in 2017. The report, in El Confidencial, said that Mr Villarejo was being paid to thwart the extradition of a Spanish citizen to Guatemala and he wanted Ms Delgado to help him.
Ms Delgado, an expert in jihadist terrorism, initially denied having any kind of relationship with the disgraced police officer. She then nuanced that claim by explaining she had not had any “professional” links to him.
This week audio was leaked to the media from a 2009 meal at which Mr Villarejo and Ms Delgado chatted about major judicial issues, as well as discussing personal matters and making bawdy jokes.
Adding to the minister’s embarrassment, on the audio she appears to call the magistrate Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who is now interior minister, “a faggot”. Mr Grande-Marlaska, who is gay, shrugged off the incident by publicly hugging Ms Delgado in congress the day after the audio went viral.
“You all know that the important thing is not words, it’s deeds,” he said when asked about the incident. “This is a unified government and we always do our best to ensure diversity and equality.”
Prime minister Pedro Sánchez took office in June, after presenting a successful no-confidence motion against his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy. His appointment of a female-dominated cabinet captured headlines around the world, as did his plan to exhume the body of dictator Francisco Franco from a mausoleum.
But in recent weeks a string of scandals and U-turns has left the government reeling.
Health minister Carmen Montón resigned earlier this month following revelations that she had plagiarised parts of the thesis of a post-graduate degree she had taken. Days later, Mr Sánchez himself was under the spotlight, facing claims he had plagiarised parts of his 2012 doctoral thesis and that other people had written much of it for him. The prime minister flatly rejected the accusations, which came from right-wing newspapers, and the furore has now calmed.
But also this month, the government was left red-faced over its sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. The defence ministry cancelled the deal due to human rights concerns, before the government changed its mind when the Saudis reportedly threatened to pull out of other, more lucrative, purchases.
On Wednesday, Rafael Hernando, of the opposition Popular Party (PP), called the justice minister a “zombie”, saying: “You are guilty, stop filling our democracy with opprobrium and go.”
More worrying for the government, its leftist ally, Podemos, has appeared to call for the minister's resignation, with party leader Pablo Iglesias accusing her of having "a friendship with representatives of the sewers".
The opposition has urged Mr Sánchez, whose Socialists have less than a quarter of seats in parliament, to call an early election. However, he has said he will see out this legislature until 2020.
Speaking in English during a visit to New York this week, he brushed off speculation about his justice minister’s future and the stability of his government.
“When I read some newspapers saying: ‘You must convoke elections because […] the government is going to suffer and so on and so forth’, I say, who suffers is the opposition, not the government,” Mr Sánchez said.
A poll published this week by the CIS national research centre showed that his Socialists were nearly 10 points ahead of their nearest rivals, the PP, although it was taken before the government’s most recent problems.