Nicola Sturgeon has said her husband Peter Murrell was “right” to announce his immediate resignation as chief executive of the SNP amid controversy over the party’s membership numbers.
The First Minister said her husband had been “a key part of the electoral success” in her time as Holyrood leader, but conceded it was the correct time to announce his departure after being threatened with a vote of no confidence by the party’s non-executive committee.
The SNP’s communications chief, Murray Foote, quit on Friday after being told “false information” over the number of people eligible to vote on the successor to Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood.
In his resignation letter issued on Saturday, Murrell said responsibility for the disclosure – which had been questioned by several journalists – “ultimately fell on [him],” though said he had intended to stand down at the end of the leadership contest regardless of who was victorious.
It came after leadership candidates Kate Forbes and Ash Regan questioned the integrity of the ballot, which is due to close on March 27, alleging there was a “conflict of interest” over Murrell’s marriage to Sturgeon and his position overseeing the contest to replace her.
Both, along with fellow runner Humza Yousaf, agreed that Murrell’s position had become a “distraction” from the ballot – which is due to close on March 27.
Opposition parties accused the SNP of “fighting like ferrets in a sack,” branding the leadership contest “shambolic”.
Sturgeon told Sky News Murrell had “obviously taken responsibility for the recent issue with membership”.
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.
“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.”
Earlier this week it emerged that the party had lost 30,000 members in just over a year.
Foote said that after speaking to the party’s HQ, he had issued responses to the media which had “serious issues” and he later decided there was a “serious impediment” to his role.
On Thursday the party said membership as of February 15 this year was 72,186, having fallen from 103,884 in 2021.
It corroborated a story in the Sunday Mail in February about the SNP losing 30,000 members, something Foote had strongly denied at the time.
Yousaf said the past 72 hours had made it “challenging” for Murrell to remain in post, but insisted the episode had not damaged the credibility of the governing party.
“I think it was the right thing for Peter to do, given the challenges of the last 72 hours,” he told STV News.
“As Peter said himself, it became a bit of a distraction and we don’t need distractions in the middle of a leadership campaign. We’ve got to be talking about the issues that are important to people.
“I’m not convinced that general members of the public, the people, pay all that much attention to what the membership numbers of the SNP are. I think the SNP members, they want to see stability, they want to see a leader in place that will help to maintain and all the support of the party.
“And they want to be sure that whoever they elect as the next leader of the SNP will take internal reform as headquarters really seriously.”
Yousaf previously denied concerns over the integrity of the vote as “baseless smears”.
However, Forbes told STV News Murrell’s resignation was proof that “continuity won’t cut it” and called for a change in the “status quo”.
“We are at a crossroads as a party, as a movement, as a nation; we need change and that change needs to be built on the pillars of honesty, integrity and transparency,” she said.
“We have had a strong track record. We have won multiple elections because we earned the trust of the people of Scotland. And I think at this crossroads, we need to think again about how to maintain the trust of the Scottish people.
“The recipe for success has been that the SNP listen to people, they deliver to the people and they maintain trust.
“And for me, the root of all of this, the route of change, is to earn people’s trust again.”
In a statement, Regan, who had also questioned Murrell’s role in the electoral process, said the “democratic foundations” of the party were “asserting their rightful function”.
She added: “Eight years ago was the point where it was unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as the CEO.
“The SNP is more than capable of surviving this, as long as we stick true to our roots, and we uphold the values of our members.
“Accountability, transparency, modernity and accessibility are our foundations. Every time we believe we have met our capacity to overcome a challenge, we can look up to our guiding lights, and know that our capacity may be limitless.”
Former CEO and current party president Michael Russell will take on Murrell’s duties on an interim and voluntary basis.
The party disclosed the leadership election has been overseen throughout by Lorna Finn, the elected national secretary, while the issuing and counting of ballots is being conducted by independent polling firm Mi-Voice.
In his resignation letter, Murrell said he did not have “any role in the election contest”.
But Craig Hoy, chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, said the election had been “shambolic” and accused the party of ignoring “real priorities” for government during the race.
“When two of the three candidates publicly question the integrity of the contest to elect Scotland’s First Minister and the party’s top spin doctor quits because he was fed lies by senior party figures, then the game is up,” he said.
“While he may be quitting as chief executive, Peter Murrell must fully cooperate with any probes into the way this leadership election has been run – and with the police inquiry into the SNP’s finances.
“This ongoing SNP civil war is disastrous for the whole of Scotland. How can a party that is unable to govern itself possibly govern the country?
“The public’s real priorities are being ignored as the SNP turns inwards on itself – and that will remain the case whoever emerges from this carnage as First Minister.”
Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie accused the party of “tearing itself apart” during the leadership contest.
She added: “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.
“While Scots struggle to get by, the SNP are fighting like ferrets in a sack.
“Scotland deserves better than this divided SNP government.”