The husband of Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has resigned as chief executive of her governing Scottish National party after it was forced to admit it had 30,000 fewer members than it had claimed.
The sudden departure of Peter Murrell, who had served as CEO since 1999 and married Sturgeon in 2010, deals a heavy blow to the SNP establishment. It also highlights the division and disarray that has engulfed the pro-independence party since the first minister announced her intention to resign last month.
Murrell, who had been under pressure over questions about SNP funding, said on Saturday he had planned to step down after the party elected a successor to Sturgeon later this month, but would now leave with immediate effect.
The SNP admitted on Thursday it had 30,000 fewer members than it claimed at the beginning of the bitterly contested campaign to elect a new standard-bearer for the campaign to end Scotland’s three-century union with England.
Murrell’s resignation came after the departure on Friday of Murray Foote, the head of communications for SNP members of the Scottish parliament. Foote said there had been “serious issues” with statements he had issued “as a courtesy to colleagues at party HQ” to journalists questioning the SNP membership numbers.
“Responsibility for the SNP’s responses to media queries about our membership number lies with me as chief executive,” Murrell said in a statement. “While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome.”
Divisions within the SNP and complaints about its handling of the leadership election have wrecked the vaunted discipline that helped the party take control of Scotland’s devolved government in 2007 and win every major election since.
Kate Forbes, finance secretary and one of the two main candidates to be the next SNP leader and first minster, said in a letter to members posted on Twitter that she had been “hurt and bemused by the extraordinary turmoil in our party over the last days”.
Ash Regan, a former community safety minister and outside candidate for the leadership, said she was “encouraged to see the democratic foundations of the party now asserting themselves”. Regan had previously said that having a wife and husband team as party leader and CEO constituted a conflict of interest, especially during a leadership election.
Humza Yousaf, health secretary and the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Sturgeon, has run on a platform generally supportive of her record but he has also called for reform of SNP headquarters.
Yousaf said on Saturday he agreed with Murrell that it was time to “make way for a new leader to appoint a new chief executive as passionate about the SNP and the cause of independence as he has been”.
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 had claimed at the start of the race it still had close to the 104,000 members it reported at the end of 2021 — itself a marked fall from a peak of 125,000 in 2019.
The party has been criticised over its handling of money raised in 2017 and 2019 to fund an expected independence referendum campaign.
And it has faced questions about a £107,620 loan made by Murrell to the party in 2021 “for working capital purposes”. The loan was not declared to the Electoral Commission until more than a year later, a breach of election finance rules.
Asked at a press conference last month when she learned about the loan, Sturgeon said she could not recall and that what her husband did with his resources was “a matter for him”.