Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon arm in arm – Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe
For more than a decade, it has been one of the most effective political machines in Western democracy. Just five weeks ago, Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive, were named as Britain’s second most influential power couple.
Now, the pair, and some believe their party and movement, are hurtling into political oblivion.
Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister will depart office within days. Her husband was forced out on Saturday, after taking the blame for misleading the Scottish public over how many people will vote to succeed his wife.
Meanwhile, a party once feted for its iron discipline has spectacularly unravelled. Its first leadership contest in two decades has been hit by scandal and fearsome infighting, while court action could yet derail it further.
With the spectre of a police probe hanging over the party, Liz Lloyd, Ms Sturgeon’s most trusted aide, John Swinney, her deputy first minister and Murray Foote, a senior party spin doctor, have followed Ms Sturgeon’s lead by quitting.
Now, with poll ratings plummeting, experts believe there may be no immediate way back for a party that was seen as posing a very real threat to the existence of the United Kingdom.
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University and an expert on the SNP, compared the turmoil to “a pressure cooker effect that has just blown”.
“There have been a whole lot of internal disagreements in the SNP for quite some time,” he said.
“Sturgeon’s departure has brought to the surface the problems. It is unravelling very fast and you can’t put a block on it. Using the pressure cooker analogy, you cannot put the lid back on it. There was no release valve. It has just exploded.”
The SNP still plans to choose a new leader next Monday, with Sturgeon “continuity candidate” Humza Yousaf facing Kate Forbes and Ash Regan in what has been an extraordinarily divisive contest.
Blair McDougall, a senior figure in the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, claimed Ms Sturgeon had “run out of road”. Her departure had left her party “shocked and bereft”, without the figurehead that had kept its politically disparate factions united, he said.
He claimed the SNP had “cultivated a conspiracy” that suggested Scotland had been deprived of natural resources and made poorer by Westminster, which had not been true.
“When you have a secretive tightly controlled party machine whose view of the world is one great conspiracy you can’t be surprised it unravels,” he said.
Robert Pyper, emeritus professor of government and public policy at the University of the West of Scotland, said the SNP’s “penchant for secrecy and concealment has exacerbated the internal divisions”.
“The sudden departure of Nicola Sturgeon has blown the lid,” he added. “The SNP’s failures are now being exposed month by month.
“I don’t think you can ever say Scottish independence is dead. But the SNP have been utterly obsessed by the independence project to the exclusion of delivering on public policies and that has fundamentally damaged the independence project.”
Ms Sturgeon and Mr Murrell – Jane Barlow/PA
Mr Murrell has been at the top of Scottish nationalist politics for a quarter of a century. He had largely managed to stay out of the limelight, even after he married Ms Sturgeon in 2010, but over recent years he has become embroiled in a series of scandals.
There were concerns when Ms Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as party leader in 2014 that the arrangement was inappropriate, with Mr Murrell having been the party chief executive since 1999. Privately, senior SNP figures urged Mr Murrell to stand down. But Ms Sturgeon brushed aside their fears that too much power would be concentrated in one household.
Those who raised concerns at the time say they have been vindicated, with the “Sturrells” running the country and ruling party as heads of a tiny clique of select politicians and advisers.
Even SNP Cabinet ministers complained that they had little influence over policy-making in their own portfolio areas.
The party, Prof Mitchell said, had been run by a “tiny number of people – as few as five at the very core and that includes her [Sturgeon’s] husband”.
The party establishment under Mr Murrell had barely disguised its preference that Mr Yousaf, who until the turmoil of recent days had embraced his status as the “continuity candidate”, succeed Ms Sturgeon.
Ms Lloyd, Ms Sturgeon’s closest aide and a taxpayer-funded special adviser, announced that she would stand down last week, hours after Ms Regan had complained that her assistance to Mr Yousaf’s campaign was inappropriate.
Mr Swinney, the deputy first minister and another member of the inner circle, is following Ms Sturgeon to Holyrood’s backbenches but has endorsed Mr Yousaf and attacked Ms Forbes, his main rival.
A numbers game
The scandal that saw the SNP descend into complete turmoil erupted after journalists and leadership contenders exposed a cover-up at party headquarters over its membership numbers.
The SNP’s large membership had been a source of pride for the party and Mr Murrell in particular. He became known for tweeting regular updates about the number of new recruits as the SNP enjoyed its huge influx after the 2014 referendum.
The party has become more reticent about releasing the figure over recent years, amid claims large numbers had quit over gender reforms, a lack of progress on independence or to join Mr Salmond’s Alba Party.
When the Sunday Mail, a Scottish tabloid, published a story on February 12 claiming as many as 30,000 members had recently quit, it brought a furious denial from the party.
Mr Foote, the party’s head of communications at Holyrood, called the 30,000 claim “b——s” and “wrong by about 30,000”.
When Ms Sturgeon announced she was standing down days later, journalists asked the SNP how many members were eligible to vote in the leadership contest.
The party repeatedly briefed that numbers were similar to the previously published figure, which was 103,884.
It was only after leadership candidates Ms Forbes and Ms Regan publicly demanded that the size of the electorate be released that the party reluctantly admitted on Thursday that the true total stands at just 72,186.
Mr Foote, a former newspaper editor, resigned the following day, claiming he had been misled into wrongly denying the media reports.
After the loss of Mr Foote, who was well-liked within the SNP, support drained away from Mr Murrell, even among Sturgeon loyalists.
He quit on Saturday, and accepted responsibility for the fiasco, after he was told he would face a vote of no confidence by the party’s ruling committee if he did not.
Joanna Cherry MP – Jonathan Brady/PA
The SNP has become embroiled in a long-running police investigation over party finances, which some party insiders believe will soon yield dramatic results.
When Ms Sturgeon began her first attempt to rerun the 2014 independence referendum, Mr Murrell launched an appeal to raise a £1 million campaign war chest from supporters.
However, the online fundraiser was quietly dropped after the 2017 snap general election, called by Theresa May, took the SNP by surprise.
The party lost more than a third of its seats after the referendum plan proved unpopular with voters.
The SNP claimed the £482,000 the fundraiser had brought in, together with money from a second fundraiser held in 2019 taking the total to £600,000, would only be spent on a future referendum campaign.
However, in 2020, a nationalist blog Wings Over Scotland drew attention to the SNP’s 2019 accounts, according to which it had just £96,854 in “cash in hand and at bank”.
Members questioned where their cash had gone and a handful called in the police.
A succession of unconvincing explanations from SNP headquarters followed, including that the cash had been “woven through” the accounts.
Intrigue deepened when members elected a new treasurer in November 2020, the MP Douglas Chapman, in a landslide after he vowed to increase financial transparency.
He resigned the following May, claiming he had “not received the support or financial information to carry out the fiduciary duties of national treasurer”.
Joanna Cherry, an MP and leading Sturgeon critic, had been elected to the party’s ruling National Executive in the same set of internal elections. She stood down shortly after Mr Chapman, saying she had been unable to fulfil her mandate “to improve transparency and scrutiny” and “uphold the party’s constitution”.
Prof Mitchell said: “It is bizarre – the very fact there is a police inquiry is a huge challenge. They are clearly struggling for money. The business community has abandoned the SNP under Sturgeon and while they claimed mass membership replaced business donations, we now know they don’t have that.”
It also emerged that Mr Murrell had personally lent the party £107,620 interest free, a highly unusual arrangement not initially declared to the Electoral Commission as it should have been.
The police investigation into finances had continued, with a report that “outlines enquiries already undertaken and seeks further instruction” recently sent to Scotland’s prosecution service.
There has been chatter for weeks in Scottish political circles that major developments are imminent.
Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan – Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Even supporters of Ms Sturgeon admit that her failure to groom an obvious successor was a major failing which has contributed to the current chaos.
She was crowned party leader unopposed in 2014, when Mr Salmond quit after losing the referendum.
It initially appeared that Derek Mackay, who was finance secretary, had been earmarked by Ms Sturgeon to one day take on the top job.
However, his political career ended in disgrace in February 2020, hours before he was due to set out the Scottish budget, after it emerged that he had sent “creepy” online messages to a 16-year-old schoolboy.
Although Mr Mackay was cleared of any criminality he never returned to Holyrood as an MSP.
Ms Sturgeon’s leadership style meant that it was almost impossible for her ministers to carve out their own political identity or set policy, her critics claim, leaving all of the potential contenders underprepared.
“The people now standing to replace her have made no decisions of their own,” Mr McDougall said.
“The only other person allowed to make any decision in Nicola Sturgeon’s government was John Swinney. Everybody else had to run it through her. So when you have the collapse of such a centralised party and government you leave behind a party that is shocked and bereft.
“Kate Forbes has been fed lines throughout her career so when you suddenly have to take a line on your religious view, you have no idea how to do it.”
Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond – Andrew Milligan/PA
Once seen as the closest of allies, Ms Sturgeon’s relationship with her former mentor broke down spectacularly in 2018, over allegations of sexual misconduct when he was first minister.
He took the Government he once led to court – and won – over claims that it had botched its internal investigation against him. Mr Salmond had wanted Ms Sturgeon to step in to argue for a confidential mediation process but she refused, leaving him feeling betrayed.
Worse was to follow when Mr Salmond was changed with 14 offences, including two of attempted rape. He was cleared of all charges, but a Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the episode saw their dispute erupt into an extraordinary all-out war.
Mr Salmond accused figures close to Ms Sturgeon, including Mr Murrell, of effectively conspiring against him to have him jailed.
While she was found by the majority of members of a Holyrood committee to have misled parliament, she was cleared of breaking the ministerial code in a separate probe, allowing her to survive the scandal.
Mr Salmond then attempted to mount a political comeback, launching the rival Alba Party ahead of the 2021 Holyrood elections. While the venture has so far largely been a failure, Mr Salmond retains a sharp political mind and remains intent on revenge.
He has contacts and influence within sections of the independence movement and Kirk Torrance, one of his close allies, is advising Ms Regan’s campaign.
rally outside Scottish Parliament by pro-family values groups protesting against the Scottish GovernmentÂ’s Gender Recognition Reform bill – Iain Masterton/Alamy Live News
Ms Sturgeon has denied that an outcry over her gender laws, passed at Holyrood in December and blocked by the UK Government in January, played a part in her departure.
However, the spectacle of her refusing to say whether transgender rapist Isla Bryson, initially sent to a women’s jail under a prisons policy that followed the same principle as her self-ID law, was a man or a woman, risked turning Ms Sturgeon into a figure of ridicule.
Critics said the policy was an individual example of Ms Sturgeon’s wider failings, as she dismissed women’s concerns as “not valid” and failed to engage with the substance of her policy, instead seeing it as a means of boosting her “progressive” credentials.
Even when it became clear that the plans were toxic with the Scottish public, Ms Sturgeon pushed ahead, fearful that backtracking would blow up her flagship coalition deal with the far-Left Scottish Greens.
Isla Bryson, formerly Adam Graham – Reuters/Police Scotland
She also made a potent enemy out of Scotland’s other most powerful woman, the author JK Rowling, who launched a series of extraordinary attacks on a First Minister she branded a “destroyer of women’s rights”.
Some SNP figures looked on horrified as the policy cost the party and the independence cause loyal supporters, with the issue having the rare ability in Scotland to unify campaigners from both sides of the constitutional divide.
It also caused the biggest parliamentary rebellion in the SNP’s history, damaging Ms Sturgeon’s authority as nine SNP MSPs openly defied her.
SNP politicians had been told that if they voted for the legislation, the issue would then fade from prominence. The theory was exploded by the UK Government veto and the Bryson case, and leaves a major headache for Ms Sturgeon’s successor.
“If you don’t listen to constructive criticism you end up in a whole heap of a mess,” Prof Mitchell said. “They didn’t consult, they didn’t listen. Gender recognition is an example of that going wrong.”
On an issue that any SNP leader is ultimately judged on, Ms Sturgeon failed to deliver, despite a favourable set of political circumstances.
Disputes over possible strategies for leaving the UK, after a referendum repeatedly promised was never delivered, fuelled divisions within the SNP and the wider movement.
Ms Sturgeon promised her activists a referendum three times. A Supreme Court challenge last year, which led to confirmation that UK Government permission was needed for a vote, was seen by some as a major blunder.
Her “plan C” – attempting to turn the general election into a “de-facto referendum” – horrified many SNP MPs and faced being rejected in what promised to be a messy special party conference.
Ms Sturgeon had organised the event in the hope that her party would rubber stamp her plan, but it will now never go ahead with even “continuity candidate” Mr Yousaf disowning her strategy.
Meanwhile, opinion polls show that despite Brexit, which Scots widely rejected, and the chaotic tenure of Boris Johnson who was despised north of the border, support for independence has barely shifted since 2014.
“Nicola Sturgeon’s great talent was as a communicator,” Prof Mitchell said. “There is no one quite like her in the UK. But it only takes you so far and it covered up significant weaknesses.
“The polls haven’t moved over the last eight years even though circumstances – like Boris Johnson – were as good as they would ever be.”
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