£100k boss presided over stench of lies and murky finances
By CRAIG McDONALD
dmg media (UK)
The Party’s Over
HE’S the political anorak who became SNP chief executive while still in his mid-30s, yet managed to keep himself – until recently – largely out of the limelight. Even when his wife became First Minister, Peter Murrell kept a low profile, preferring to stay behind the scenes, analysing the facts and totting up the numbers as the party enjoyed electoral success after success. Speaking in 2014, just days before she took over from Alex Salmond, Ms Sturgeon told how she awoke at around 3am to find her husband sitting up in bed tapping away on his iPhone. He was checking up on the latest SNP membership figures. Celebrating the party’s then-rising numbers, he would post a series of messages in a somewhat uncharacteristic show of emotion on Twitter. In one, using dad-rockstyle language, he stated: ‘Bada bing bada boom, 25,000 newbies and counting.’ Days later, it was, ‘Shaka Laka Boom!!’ as another 9,000 arrived. This was followed by ‘Doo wop be dooby do eye!’ while ‘Well-ellell-ell! You make me wanna shout’ was the update days after that, with ‘7 o’clock and I want to rock’ posted on a Saturday evening heralding more incomers. The tweets highlighted his twin passions – for numbers and his party’s fortunes. But in one of life’s great ironic twists, it would be the same membership figures, albeit on the opposite trajectory, which would lead to his downfall nearly a decade later. Announcing his resignation yesterday – and acknowledging the SNP had lied about its falling membership – he said: ‘While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome.’ Born in 1964, Mr Murrell grew up in Edinburgh’s leafy Corstorphine area, attending Craigmount High and then studying at Glasgow University in the mid-1980s. He worked as a PR officer with the Church of Scotland before, as a staunch SNP supporter, he was invited to run Mr Salmond’s constituency office in Peterhead. There, he helped organise SNP youth weekends, meeting an 18-year-old Nicola Sturgeon for the first time at an event in 1988. It was as part of Mr Salmond’s team that his political journey began during his 20s – and it was the then Banff and Buchan MP who recognised his talents and sponsored his rise through the SNP ranks. Appointed chief executive in 1999, Mr Murrell had ascended to a key backroom role during a transitional phase for the party. John Swinney was making heavy weather of leading the SNP while Mr Salmond skulked at Westminster, his dream of independence, at the time, well off the menu. However, the stars soon began to align for the new £100,000-ayear chief executive as the party headed towards its most successful political period. He attended the Craigellachie Hotel summit in 2005, at which senior SNP figures vowed to pull out all the stops to win the 2007 Holyrood election. Mr Murrell is credited with delivering the Activate system, which allowed activists on the ground to relay crucial voter information back to party HQ. While most of his time was focused on party matters, he also described himself as a proud uncle, part-time cook and gardener. After several years together as a couple, he married Ms Sturgeon in 2010 and, with his wife taking centre stage, Mr Murrell continued to work away in the background. But many party insiders and political pundits credited him as being the man central to the SNP’s transformation from a fringe outfit with a passionate, but limited, support, to becoming the dominant political force in Scotland. In a nod to his low profile, his wife said: ‘He’s happy at me having the public role. He’s not one of those guys who feel threatened by it. He doesn’t have that sort of ego, he’s very self-assured.’ In recent years, though, Mr Murrell began to start attracting attention – amid growing claims of dictatorial leadership, secrecy and murky finances at the SNP. At the Holyrood Inquiry in 2020 into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against Mr Salmond, he denied plotting against the ex-First Minister. Opposition MSPs believed Mr Murrell contradicted himself, and his wife, in his evidence. He was pressed repeatedly over whether meetings between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond at his home were SNP business, as the First Minister insisted, or Government business, the latter requiring to be officially recorded. In 2021, Police Scotland said it had launched a probe into the whereabouts of £600,000 in ‘missing’ donations to the SNP. Mr Murrell hit the headlines again last year as it emerged he gave a loan of £107,620 to the SNP to help with ‘cash flow’ issues after the last Holyrood election. He remained in charge of the party machine but the clock was ticking. His wife’s decision last month to step down was the beginning of the end for Mr Murrell – his denouement hastened by the fallout from the bitter battle to become her successor. The final blow was to stem from the row that erupted over party numbers. When the SNP media chief Murray Foote quit on Friday and announced he had effectively been fed bogus membership statistics by party bosses, it could only mean one thing. With fingers pointing at him as his party unravelled, Mr Murrell, the man with the knack of keeping his head down, finally found himself in the full glare of the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.