The chief executive of the Scottish party has resigned with immediate effect as an escalating row over party membership figures engulfs the party’s senior echelons, prompting demands for an overhaul of how it carries out its internal business.
Peter Murrell, who has been chief executive since 2000 and married Nicola Sturgeon in 2010, said he had planned to step down after the leadership contest to replace his wife had concluded, but was doing so now because “my future has become a distraction from the campaign”.
All three candidates vying to replace Sturgeon welcomed his decision, but only Humza Yousaf, widely understood to be the party leadership’s preferred successor, went on to praise him as “an outstanding servant of the independence movement and the SNP”.
Michael Russell, the SNP president, will oversee the operation of its headquarters on an interim basis following Murrell’s resignation, the party said.
He will take charge until a new leader is in place and a permanent chief executive is appointed.
Murrell’s position became untenable after the party’s head of communications, Murray Foote, resigned on Friday evening, saying he had been given false information to feed to the media about the disputed membership figures by “colleagues at party HQ”.
As pressure grew on Murrell to apologise, the Herald reported on Saturday morning that he had been told to resign by the end of the day or face a vote of no confidence from the party’s national executive committee.
On Thursday, the party revealed the total number of members eligible to vote in its leadership contest had fallen to 72,186, after coming under sustained pressure from all three leadership candidates to release the figures. Two of the candidates – the finance minister, Kate Forbes, and Ash Regan, a former junior minister – questioned the integrity of the ballot process.
The number released was significantly lower than that previously estimated by party sources and briefed to journalists in the early stages of the campaign. It also confirmed a Sunday Mail report from February that the SNP’s membership had slumped by 30,000 since 2021, which Foote originally dismissed as “drivel”.
In a statement issued just before lunchtime, Murrell 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.”
He said he was “very proud” of what the party had achieved in his time as chief executive, citing “14 national election wins”.
Amid criticism of his proximity to the contest to replace his wife, Murrell said: “The election contest is being run by the national secretary and I have had no role in it at any point.”
Sturgeon’s unexpected resignation as first minister in February sparked calls for Murrell to step aside and be replaced by a more neutral caretaker figure. The pair have faced criticism for years about the effect on transparency and accountability of having a married couple at the top of the party.
Sturgeon’s resignation prompted further speculation about a Police Scotland investigation into the fate of £600,000 donated to the SNP for its next independence referendum campaign, and Murrell’s loan of £107,000 to the party to “assist with cashflow” after the 2021 Holyrood election campaign.
Sturgeon said her husband was right to announce his resignation. She told Sky News: “He had intended to step down when there was a new leader but I think he was right to make that announcement today.”
She 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.”
Just before Murrell announced his resignation, Forbes published an open letter to SNP members, urging them not to sit out the election because they were “scunnered by the stories”. She promised a series of internal changes, including an independent audit of membership numbers and finances.
Forbes wrote: “Restoring trust and transparency in the way that the SNP carries out its internal business and restoring the confidence of people in Scotland are two sides of the same coin.”
Responding to Murrell’s resignation, Regan said: “Eight years ago was the point where it was unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as the CEO. I am encouraged to see the democratic foundations of the party now asserting their rightful function.”
Thanking Murrell, Yousaf said: “I agree with Peter that it is time for him to move on and 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.
“With less than 10 days to go in this leadership contest, it is vital we all focus on the policies and vision we have for the party, movement and country.”