The SNP sensationally imploded last night after party chief executive Peter Murrell was forced to quit – just weeks after his wife, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her shock resignation as First Minister.
The downfall of Scotland’s foremost political power couple followed revelations in The Mail on Sunday that the SNP had lied about its true membership numbers ahead of the leadership race.
Critics feared the bogus numbers were being used by the SNP ‘party machine’ to inflate support for Humza Yousaf, seen as the establishment’s preferred candidate to take over as First Minister.
Yesterday, in a statement announcing his immediate resignation, Mr Murrell admitted he was responsible for the ‘misleading’ claims about membership figures – which the party had repeatedly said stood at around 100,000, but were actually around 72,000.
His bombshell departure comes amid a continuing police probe into how independence campaign donations have been handled and questions over why he made a personal donation of £107,000 to the party amid a cash crisis.
Nicola Sturgeon ‘s husband Peter Murrell has stepped down as the Chief Executive of the SNP
His bombshell departure comes amid a continuing police probe into how independence campaign donations have been handled
Last night commentators said it was the final nail in the coffin for the embattled Scottish nationalist movement.
SNP facing demands to rerun poll after Sturgeon’s husband quits
The SNP is facing demands to rerun its leadership contest after the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon’s husband as the party’s chief executive.
Peter Murrell admitted that he had misled party members and the Scottish public on the size of the electorate.
There have been claims since that bogus numbers were being used to inflate support for Humza Yousaf – seen as the continuity candidate after Ms Sturgeon’s shock resignation.
Now sources close to one of his rivals, Ash Regan, have demanded the contest is restarted and existing ballot papers discarded.
‘The ballot needs to be rerun,’ a source close to Ms Regan told The Telegraph.
‘If members knew what they know now would they have voted the same way?
‘My suspicion is that for many, the answer is no. They are entitled to reconsider now that they have more information.
‘If there is not a rerun and Humza wins, his position would become untenable very quickly,’ they added.
‘I doubt he would even make it to being confirmed as First Minister.’
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: ‘The party of government is imploding, guilty of cover-up and lying to the Scottish people.
‘Murrell’s resignation, along with other senior figures in the SNP, shows that the Nationalists are no longer fit to govern.’
Scottish Conservative chairman Craig Hoy said: ‘A fish rots from the head down – and the same applies to the SNP.
‘Peter Murrell’s resignation is long overdue but there remain serious questions for him to answer, not least over the ‘missing’ £600,000 from party accounts.
‘The brutal, shambolic SNP leadership election appears to have been the tipping point that’s forced the First Minister’s husband to quit before he was pushed.’
Also, in a day of dramatic developments:
l Leadership hopeful Kate Forbes called on SNP members who had not yet voted to choose ‘change’ and vote for her in light of the tumultuous Murrell revelations;
l Insiders suggested she would clear out SNP top brass who had shored up the chief executive if she becomes First Minister;
l Party bigwig Mike Russell took over as interim chief executive.
The MoS exclusively revealed last week that nearly 50,000 members had abandoned the SNP in the past three years, with around 30,000 since 2021.
Speculation had been growing that SNP membership under Ms Sturgeon’s leadership had plummeted since February, when a Scottish newspaper said paid-up members had dropped to around 70,000.
The claims were dismissed as ‘drivel’ by the SNP’s head of media, Murray Foote. However, last week, the MoS confirmed the SNP had lied over the issue.
Our reporters approached the private company in charge of running the SNP leadership ballot, Mi-Voice, to secure the true figures.
A source at the Southampton-based polling firm said it had received the names of only around three-quarters of the 104,000 members touted by the SNP.
The news sent shockwaves across Scotland, with many concerned about the risk of election rigging, given the opaque nature of the contest.
Leadership candidates Ms Forbes and Ash Regan pressured party HQ over the figures until eventually, on Thursday, the SNP admitted membership as of February 15 this year was 72,186, down from 103,884 in 2021.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and with her husband Peter Murrell
Murrell’s resignation speech
Responsibility for the SNP’s responses to media queries about our membership number lies with me as chief executive. While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome. I have therefore decided to confirm my intention to step down as chief executive with immediate effect.
I had not planned to confirm this decision until after the leadership election. However as my future has become a distraction from the campaign I have concluded that I should stand down now, so the party can focus fully on issues about Scotland’s future. The election contest is being run by the National Secretary and I have had no role in it at any point.
I am very proud of what has been achieved in my time as chief executive and of the part I have played in securing the electoral success the party has enjoyed over almost two decades. Fourteen national election wins is testament to the skills of the dedicated and talented HQ team that I have been privileged to lead.
They give their all to the party and the independence cause and I thank them for it.
I have worked for independence all my life and will continue to do so, albeit in a different capacity, until it is achieved – and I do firmly believe that independence is now closer than ever.
Mr Foote resigned from his post on Friday, saying he had been misled by SNP headquarters.
Rumours swirled yesterday that the party’s ruling body, the national executive committee, was set to launch a vote of no confidence in Mr Murrell.
However, Mr Murrell conceded his 24 years in office had come to an end and, rather than face a cripplingly embarrassing vote, decided to leave the party rudderless. He said: ‘Responsibility for the SNP’s responses to media queries about our membership number lies with me as chief executive. While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome.
‘I have therefore decided to confirm my intention to step down as chief executive with immediate effect.’
He added: ‘I had not planned to confirm this decision until after the leadership election. However, as my future has become a distraction from the campaign, I have concluded that I should stand down now.
‘I am very proud of what has been achieved in my time as chief executive and of the part I have played in securing the electoral success the party has enjoyed over almost two decades.’
Ms Forbes has now written to those still to vote in the SNP leadership race, pledging to heal the divisions caused by the outgoing First Minister and Mr Murrell. Those close to her campaign suggest that if she is crowned First Minister she is ready to clear out dead wood at SNP HQ.
Among the senior figures she could target are chief operating officer Sue Ruddick and SNP lawyer Scott Martin.
Meanwhile, fellow leadership candidate Ms Regan hailed the departure of Mr Murrell and said she was ‘encouraged to see the democratic foundations of the party now asserting their rightful function’.
Nationalist MP Joanna Cherry, who is backing Ms Regan, said ‘if anyone was in any doubt’ the party needed a ‘reset’ then ‘the events of the last days have proved it’.
She added: ‘Winning elections isn’t enough. It’s what you do with the wins that matters. Integrity matters. Our party and our country can and will do better than this.’
However, Health Secretary Mr Yousaf – perceived to be the SNP establishment’s preferred choice – has consistently dismissed concerns about the party’s transparency as ‘smears’.
In a sycophantic tribute to his former boss, he praised Mr Murrell as ‘an outstanding servant of the independence movement’.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said his departure proved the wheels had ‘fallen off the SNP wagon’.
Mr Murrell conceded his 24 years in office had come to an end and decided to leave the party rudderless
She added: ‘When Scotland most needs responsible governance, the SNP has turned inward and begun to tear itself apart.
‘If this is what is happening in the party, just imagine the chaos in government.
‘Even leadership candidates have cast aspersions on the trustworthiness of the SNP machine.’
When approached by Sky News, Ms Sturgeon said her husband was ‘right’ to announce his immediate resignation.
She added: ‘He had intended to step down when there was a new leader but I think he was right to make that announcement today.’
Ms Sturgeon added: ‘Peter has been a key part of the electoral success we have achieved in recent years and I know there will be a recognition of that across the party.’
Stand-in chief who smears party critics as the ‘enemy’
SNP president Mike Russell will become ‘caretaker’ chief executive until a new leader is elected.
The former Brexit Minister will take over from Peter Murrell with immediate effect after his shock resignation.
Mr Russell, who was chief executive in the 1990s, is one of Nicola Sturgeon’s key allies and regarded as one of the main four stalwarts of the SNP, along with her, Ian Blackford and John Swinney.
In particular, he is a firm believer in party discipline, going as far as to call those opposed to the SNP ‘enemies’. He has chaired a number of the hustings to help find the next party leader.
SNP president Mike Russell will become ‘caretaker’ chief executive until a new leader is elected
Mr Russell, 69, will stay in the post until the next First Minister is chosen. They will then appoint their own chief executive.
Last night, Nationalist MP Kirsten Oswald said: ‘As business convener, I called the national executive committee [NEC] to meet today to take responsibility for ensuring the overall operation of SNP headquarters and ahead of the election of a new party leader.
‘NEC unanimously backed Michael Russell, our widely respected party president and a former chief executive, to take responsibility for day-to-day operations on an interim basis until a new party leader is in place and the process of appointing a permanent replacement is complete. I am pleased to confirm that Michael has agreed to this.’
Ms Oswald also insisted the ballot for the leadership race would not be restarted in light of Mr Murrell’s snap departure. She said: ‘The leadership election has been overseen entirely by the national secretary, Lorna Finn, who is responsible for all party elections, not the chief executive, and as a result these changes have no impact on the operation of the leadership contest.
‘The ballots are issued and counted by Mi-Voice, a respected independent company, and voting concludes next Monday.
‘Throughout this period, I thank the hard-working and diligent staff at SNP HQ whose commitment to our party is second to none.’
Mr Russell, however, has been at the centre of social media controversy in recent days. On Thursday, he responded to concerns about SNP transparency over the leadership race with a tweet that read: ‘As the SNP president I have told the national secretary I support publishing membership figures.
‘I also have full confidence in her and the external verification & count.’ He added: ‘I am disgusted by the abuse directed at the SNP staff by individuals who damage our cause and aid our enemies.’
Critics were particularly concerned about his use of the word ‘enemies’, which was seen by some as inflammatory language.
Later on a live stream, Mr Russell doubled down on his blunt appraisal, saying: ‘I think there has been an organised or disorganised attempt to discredit the SNP.
‘This has nothing to do with publishing figures.’
Yesterday, Ms Oswald used the announcement to thank Mr Murrell for his service to the party.
She said: ‘Peter has been a key part of the team that has led the SNP to election win after election win and changed the face of Scottish politics.
‘He steps down with our appreciation for his many years of service and great electoral success.’