A Machiavellian power couple at the wheel of the SNP juggernaut. But now their 30-year obsession lies in tatt

Pages 8-9




dmg media (UK)


The Party’s Over

WITHIN every successful party operation, there is a Peter Murrell. They don’t stand for office or do press conferences. They could walk down their own high street without anyone knowing who they are. But they are often the crucial difference between a political party winning or not. They know every village and town in the country. They poll our habits, our priorities, and our feelings; they know us better than we know ourselves. Then they turn those insights into a message, they raise funds, and build an organisation that, street by street, pushes it into our living rooms. Peter Murrell learned the ropes from Alex Salmond in the early 1990s when he worked in his constituency. He then became chief executive of the SNP in 1999. Nicknamed Penfold, due to his resemblance to the bespectacled character in the Danger Mouse children’s cartoon series, it is no exaggeration to say that for the past quarter of a century he has been the hidden mastermind who – together with his wife Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Salmond – has delivered success after success for the cause to which he has dedicated his life. So yesterday’s announcement that he has jumped before being pushed from office is yet another hammer blow for a party he once helped make so dominant. In the past three-and-a-half weeks, the SNP has lost its leader, its deputy leader, its head of media and now its chief executive. It is a party officially in meltdown. And demolished too is the strategy which, from their home on the outskirts of Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Murrell crafted together over many years. The plans of Scotland’s ultimate power couple – who this time last month held such a grip over Scottish public life – today lie in complete ruins. Mr Murrell was brought down after it emerged that his party HQ had misled the media over the size of its membership list. Its head of media, Murray Foote, had wrongly rebutted media stories that the SNP’s membership had collapsed, after being fed bogus information from party HQ (as the Mail on Sunday revealed last week, it had shipped 50,000 members). Last week, after the three candidates in the running to replace Ms Sturgeon demanded the figures were released, that falsehood was exposed. Mr Foote honourably resigned. Amid grumblings about the lack of transparency within party headquarters, claims by two of the three leadership candidates that it couldn’t be trusted to count the result fairly, and an ongoing police investigation into what has happened to £600,000 of donations for a second referendum campaign (organised by one P Murrell), this further evasion appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The party’s national executive committee issued him with an ultimatum: quit or be fired. He chose the former – insisting he was going to go soon anyway. It’s worth asking why Murrell & Co didn’t just release the membership numbers weeks ago. Why did they think they could continue to keep it quiet? Why was it so important that they tried to conceal it? It’s worth asking because it tells you a lot about the strategy Mr Murrell and Ms Sturgeon have pursued over this past decade and which has now comprehensively collapsed. As somebody who worked against the SNP as director of strategy and communications for the Scottish Conservatives, I saw it at first hand from the opposition benches – and it was awesomely impressive. The pair’s strategy was fundamentally based on a confidence trick. With Scots unwilling to be convinced about the merits of independence, they decided simply to assert that independence was inevitable. They told the country that Scotland was on a journey. They declared the destination was independence. They sought to convince everybody that it wasn’t about a matter of ‘if’, but just ‘when’. The show they cooked up together was designed to demonstrate to Scots (and the rest of the UK) that, slowly but surely, the continental plates underneath the United Kingdom were inexorably moving apart and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Their aim was to make independence appear normal, to force us all to accept it was just going to happen – so we had better get used to it. Relentlessly and brilliantly, the two of them went about ramming this point home seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Ms Sturgeon was a phenomenal frontwoman – famously hosting press conferences every day for a year during the pandemic. She never let up, rarely taking a break and always making sure she dominated the airwaves. And her husband designed the stage. Take a look at the party conferences which he laid on for his wife over the past few years. The aim was to convey that sense of overwhelming dominance. He booked huge conference halls in Glasgow and Aberdeen which no other party in Scotland could hope to match. Invariably, he would ensure his wife stood in front of an immense SNP logo, 20ft or 30ft tall. It was the ultimate messaging – here was a party making sure everybody could see just how much bigger it was than any of its rivals, big enough to swat aside opponents, criticism and doubt. Mr Murrell and Ms Sturgeon sought to show that the SNP was Scotland, a political steamroller that had the weight to crush anything in its path. The aim wasn’t to convince people of independence through force of argument – it was to tell Scots from a vast stage and with a hall full of cheering supporters that independence was happening and that was that. Those party membership figures were a key element to that story. On his rare forays in public, Mr Murrell could be relied upon to take to social media during the latest crisis in Westminster to declare that another few thousand Scots had signed up to the SNP in protest. Again, the aim was to show how, unlike other political parties with their dwindling and ageing memberships, the SNP was a growing movement, swollen by the ranks of ordinary Scots who were signing up in their droves up to express their common distaste for Westminster and their belief in the SNP. It worked for so long, handing Ms Sturgeon eight election victories. But then the project hit the rocks. After the 2021 Scottish election – which saw the SNP miss out on an overall majority – momentum drained from the project. Exhausted by the pandemic, by the cost of living crisis and a decade of relentless politics, Scots made it clear they weren’t up for another independence referendum. Desperate to feed the inevitability narrative, Ms Sturgeon cooked up a series of unhinged ideas to keep the show on the road, including a doomed challenge to the Supreme Court and the proposal to turn next year’s election into a ‘de facto’ referendum. But it clearly wasn’t working. The bitter internal dispute over the SNP’s Gender Recognition Bill caused further ructions. And as we now know, thousands of SNP members were handing back their membership cards. No wonder SNP HQ wanted to keep it under wraps – for how do you maintain your assertion that independence is inevitable and that the SNP is an unstoppable force of nature when the faithful are telling you that they’d rather not bother, thanks? The events of the past few weeks, when the party sought to deny this self-evident fact, show that rather than face up to this reversal in their fortunes, SNP HQ decided it could assert things that weren’t true. What a sign of weakness. Rather pathetically, Mr Murrell was at it again yesterday in his resignation statement, declaring – absurdly – that ‘independence is now closer than ever’. Old habits of assertion die hard it seems. But the screen has been drawn back. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to quit has revealed a party hollow at its core. It turns out that there isn’t much behind those vast glitzy conference stages. The old assertions and the ‘inevitability’ strategy has collapsed like a house of cards. Meanwhile Mr Murrell’s departure is certain to thicken the fog of conspiracy that is now enveloping the party’s leadership contest, with members’ WhatsApp groups filled with rumours about dirty tricks. They mostly centre on the widely held belief that Humza Yousaf, the favourite to succeed Ms Sturgeon, has been given a helping hand by SNP HQ. Such is the level of mistrust, Mr Murrell felt the need yesterday to insist that he had ‘no role’ in the leadership contest which, he said, was being run by the party’s national secretary. But two of the three contenders, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, are demanding independent arbiters should be brought in to evaluate the result. Responding to the news of Mr Murrell’s departure yesterday, Ms Regan declared: ‘Eight years ago was the point where it was unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as the CEO.’ It does not seem that his departure will restore trust just yet. But the truth is, very few people in the SNP complained while the Sturgeon-Murrell axis worked. The party was more than content to accept this highly unusual arrangement while it brought them electoral victories and ministerial jobs. That era is now over. The ruins left behind suggest that the astonishing success which Scotland’s power couple delivered to the SNP is over too.