Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s husband has resigned as chief executive of her governing Scottish National Party after being forced to admit it has 30,000 fewer members than it claims.
The sudden departure of Peter Murrell, who served as CEO since 1999 and married Sturgeon in 2010, dealt a blow to the SNP establishment. It also highlights the division and disarray that has gripped the pro-independence party since the First Minister announced her resignation last month.
Murrell, who has been under pressure over questions about SNP funding, said on Saturday that he had planned to step down after the party elected him as Sturgeon’s successor later this month, but would now step down with immediate effect.
The SNP admitted on Thursday that it had 30,000 fewer members than it had claimed at the start of a hotly contested campaign to elect a new standard-bearer for the campaign to end Scotland’s three-century union with England.
Murrell’s resignation follows the departure on Friday of Murray Foote, head of communications for SNP members of the Scottish Parliament. Foote said there were “serious issues” with statements issued to journalists “as a courtesy to colleagues at party headquarters” questioning SNP membership numbers.
“As chief executive I have responsibility for the SNP’s responses to media inquiries about our membership numbers,” Murrell said in a statement. “While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has resulted.”
Divisions within the SNP and complaints about the handling of its leadership election have eroded the unshakable discipline that helped the party take control of the Scottish government in 2007 and win every major election since.
Kate Forbes, the finance secretary and one of the two main candidates to become the next SNP leader and first minister, said in a letter to members posted on Twitter that she was “saddened and disturbed by the extraordinary upheaval in our party in recent days.”
Ash Regan, a former community security minister and outside candidate for the leadership, said she was “encouraged to see the democratic base of the party now asserting itself”. Reagan has previously said that having a husband and wife team as party leader and CEO is a conflict of interest, especially during leadership elections.
Humza Yusuf, the health secretary and the bookies’ favorite to succeed Sturgeon, ran on a platform that generally supported her record but also called for reform at SNP headquarters.
Youssef said on Saturday that he agreed with Murrell that it was “time to make way for a new leader to appoint a new chief executive because he is as passionate as he has been about the SNP and the cause of independence”.
After all three candidates joined calls for the SNP to reveal the current size of its membership, the party said on Thursday that 72,186 people were eligible to take part in the leadership vote, which closes on March 27.
The SNP claimed at the start of the race that it still had close to 104,000 registered members at the end of 2021 – itself a significant drop from a peak of 125,000 in 2019.
The party has been criticized over its handling of money raised in 2017 and 2019 to fund the expected independence referendum campaign.
And he faces questions about a £107,620 loan given by Murrell to the party in 2021 “for working capital purposes”. The loan was not disclosed to the Election Commission more than a year after the breach of election finance rules.
Asked at a press conference last month when she found out about the loan, Sturgeon said she couldn’t remember and what her husband did with her resources was “a matter for her.”