Sturgeon's iron grasp on the SNP has been released - but pulling the party back together again will be near impossible

18 March 2023, 14:51 | Updated: 18 March 2023, 14:52

Sturgeon's iron grasp on the SNP has been released - but pulling the party back together again is near impossible
Sturgeon's iron grasp on the SNP has been released - but pulling the party back together again is near impossible. Picture: LBC
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

The SNP is imploding. There is no doubt about it.

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Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive for more than 20 years, has resigned with immediate effect.

It comes a day after the parliamentary party’s communications chief, Murray Foote, quit over giving the media false information about the SNP membership numbers.

He pointed the finger of blame firmly at SNP HQ - he was just the messenger - and now Mr Murrell has said there was no “intent to mislead” but he was ultimately responsible and is going. 

And going today rather than, as he said he as planning, at the end of the current leadership campaign; a campaign which of course will replace his wife, Nicola Sturgeon, as SNP leader and ultimately First Minister of Scotland.

If a row over membership numbers feels like a storm in a teacup, then you’ve not been paying close enough attention.

All three candidates seeking to replace Nicola Sturgeon wanted to know the size of the party’s electorate - how many people could vote for them. It seems obvious. But they weren’t being told.

As a result distrust in the process began to build - were lapsed, or even dead members’ memberships being used? Conspiracy theories abounded.

Newspapers began to report that the party had lost 30,000 members since 2021 - reducing from the 100,000 mark to 72,000.

This was denied by the SNP - described even by Foote as “drivel” and “bollocks” on social media. Turns out though it was true. More than that, around 55,000 members have gone since 2019.

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So this is a party in collapse and that is important for the candidates who want to lead it - especially if they are pitching themselves as a “continuity candidate” or offering “radical change”.

It’s important for remaining members to know it too, so they can cast their vote accordingly.

There had been concerns raised, by Ash Regan’s campaign in particular, about Mr Murrell’s involvement in the process to replace his wife. Conflict of interest they cried - but he said he was not handling any of it, that was left to National Secretary Lorna Finn.

Unsatisfied, Regan’s unhappy camp is murmuring legal action. She had also raised concerns about one of Nicola Sturgeon’s closest aides, Liz Lloyd, allegedly lending a hand to Humza Yousaf’s campaign.

Lloyd also announced her resignation as a SPAD yesterday, saying she had intended to go when Nicola Sturgeon did.

The SNP has lost its way is Regan’s theme to this campaign - it’s hard for the other two candidates to deny that given the current state of affairs.

There have been questions about having a husband and wife team at the top of Scotland’s governing party since Nicola Sturgeon took over after Alex Salmond’s resignation in 2014.

But many blind eyes were turned to that, as Peter Murrell had turned the SNP into a hugely  successful campaigning machine, winning election after election. Why mess with what appears to be a winning formula?

However, there has been growing unease and dissatisfaction about the way the party was run - that face of unity it was so famed for began to crack as members, including elected ones, felt there was no movement on independence, and too much focus on issues such as gender reform while ferries were not built and the poverty related attainment gap was not closed.

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As Kate Forbes has said in the leadership campaign - there has not been enough delivery.

Dissent began to be made public. Complaints raised by members were apparently left unanswered, threats made to elected politicians (some of which ended in court) were not acknowledged by the leadership, and then there was the missing £600,000.

Money raised by members for a new independence campaign is alleged to have vanished. Numerous finance officers on the party’s National Executive Committee have resigned claiming they weren’t given access to the books.

A Police Scotland investigation is underway and a report is currently with the Crown Office. 

More recently it also came to light that Peter Murrell had loaned the party £100,000 as it was having cash flow issues - a loan which wasn’t declared to the Electoral Commission at the first opportunity. And one which apparently wasn’t even discussed between him and his wife, who happens to be his boss.

There are many within and outwith the SNP who are delighted at the implosion currently underway. Opposition parties are gleeful. Those in the SNP who are no fans of Murrell or Sturgeon, are delighted their iron grasp on the party is being released.

But for the three candidates looking to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, attempting to pull the party back together again now looks near impossible.