The campaign to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party — and as Scotland’s first minister — has been engulfed in chaos that has lead to the resignations of two senior SNP figures in just 24 hours.
On Saturday the SNP’s powerful chief executive Peter Murrell resigned after it became clear he had provided false membership numbers to the party’s media boss in response to a journalist request, although in a statement he claimed “there was no intent to mislead”.
Murrell, who has been in charge of the party’s backroom operations for more than 20 years, is also married to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the way the party’s executive has run the ongoing leadership contest has been criticised in recent weeks. There have also been some allegations of bias towards one of the candidates in particular — reportedly Sturgeon’s preferred successor.
In addition, there is an active police investigation into allegations that £600,000 (€680,000) of party money was misused on Murrell’s watch.
On Friday, the SNP’s media chief Murray Foote, who was previously a newspaper editor, also resigned after passing on the false membership figures he had been given, to the journalist who asked about them.
So why are the membership numbers important?
As voting got underway earlier this week in the race to replace Sturgeon, the SNP’s executive said it would not reveal how many party members were eligible to vote. All three contenders on the ballot — Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf — complained about this, saying it was normal and reasonable to be told in advance how many eligible voters there might be.
Back in February a journalist with the Sunday Mail newspaper had claimed that 30,000 party members had recently quit, in large part as a protest about Scotland’s gender recognition bill, which was passed with overwhelming cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament at the end of 2022, but which is still considered controversial by some members of the public.
At the time, Murray Foote had written on Twitter that the journalist’s reporting was “flat wrong”, “drivel”, and “tartan bollocks”; while an SNP spokesperson was quoted in another newspaper saying the Sunday Mail’s story was “malicious and wholly inaccurate.”
Now, with the SNP forced by pressure from the contenders in its own leadership race to reveal the true membership numbers, the Sunday Mail’s story was proven to be accurate: prompting both media boss Foote, and Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell to fall on their swords.
Foote said he had “acted in good faith” by issuing “agreed party responses” to media enquires about the SNP’s membership numbers, but that there were “serious issues” with what he told the journalist.
What has the reaction been?
The opposition parties in Scotland are predictably having a field day with the turmoil in the ruling party, especially during a leadership election campaign that has thrown a spotlight on policy divisions within the SNP, and when contenders have traded sharp barbs during televised debates.
The leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwar, released a statement Saturday saying “while the SNP are in turmoil, we are relentlessly focused on delivering the change Scotland needs.”
“The SNP are in turmoil and distracted by their own priorities. Frankly, Scotland deserves better than this,” Sarwar, who is an MSP from Glasgow, wrote.
Meanwhile the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, said the resignation of Murrell “is just the latest development in this SNP civil war.”
“But while the nationalists tear themselves apart, the real priorities of Scotland continue to be forgotten,” the Highlands MP said.
Meanwhile the candidates to be Scotland’s next leader have been having their say. Kate Forbes tweeted that only she can restore trust in party governance; Ash Regan said “eight years ago was the point where it was unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as the CEO”; and while Humza Yousaf hadn’t yet responded to Murrell’s resignation, on Friday night he wrote “reform of our HQ operations has been a key part of my campaign.”