Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

Peter Murrell’s re-arrest has plunged the SNP into crisis

Peter Murrell (Credit: Getty images)

There is what can only be described as a mood of despair in SNP circles following the news that the former party chief executive Peter Murrell, husband of Nicola Sturgeon, has been re-arrested and charged with ’embezzlement of funds from the Scottish National party’. It is the latest shocking twist in the long-running investigation into SNP fund-raising and finances called Operation Branchform. Mr Murrell has now resigned from the party.

He was first arrested ‘as a suspect’ in April last year but was then released without charge. At the time, a £110,000 Niesmann and Bischoff campervan was seized by police from outside Mr Murrell’s mother’s Dunfermline home. SNP headquarters in Edinburgh was also raided and a number of items removed, while a blue forensics tent was erected outside the Sturgeon family home in Uddingston near Glasgow. That image has blighted the SNP ever since.

The fear is that this scandal could overshadow the SNP’s forthcoming general election campaign

The Crown Office has renewed its customary contempt of court warning to press and public not to speculate about the nature of the investigation or the charges. Social media keyboard warriors beware. But we already knew from the former chief constable of Scotland, Sir Iain Livingstone, in a BBC interview last August that Operation Branchform had evolved from a narrow issue of party fund-raising into what he described as a complex investigation into ‘fraud or potential embezzlement’.

Livingstone had been responding to complaints from senior former SNP figures about what they regarded as excessive time being taken to bring the police investigation to a conclusion. Well now it has been. Party officials can perhaps console themselves that there can at least be no more speculation and comment on the affair until Mr Murrell has his day in court – if indeed the prosecution goes that far. Mr Murrell is, of course, innocent until proven guilty.

Operation Branchform began life nearly three years ago as an apparently mundane affair. It arose from a complaint in July 2021 from a nationalist activist, Sean Clerkin, about the use of £600,000 raised by the SNP in donations for an independence referendum that never took place. Mr Clerkin, and others who made similar complaints to police, argued that the cash was ring-fenced for a referendum campaign and should not have been recycled into general SNP party expenditure.

Nicola Sturgeon dismissed any suggestion of irregularities. She and party officials argued that the money was used quite properly to promote the SNP’s overall political objectives, which include a manifesto commitment to securing a repeat referendum, or Indyref2 as it is known. ‘All sums raised for independence campaigning,’ said an SNP spokesman at the time, ‘will be spent on independence campaigning.’

But it is fair to say that the party hierarchy failed to take the matter sufficiently seriously, at least initially. Operation Branchform just kept growing like an uncontrollable weed in the SNP backyard. Ms Sturgeon was herself arrested in June last year and released without charge, as was the former party treasurer, Colin Beattie. The former first minister went on to make an emotional plea to the media at an impromptu news conference in the Holyrood parliament on 18 June insisting, ‘I am certain I’ve done nothing wrong’. Many believed her and still do. Nicola Sturgeon has not been re-arrested and there is no suggestion that she has been involved in any wrongdoing.

But the investigation ground on relentlessly with collateral damage to the fortunes of the SNP. Party fundraising has been seriously affected and the SNP has lost about a third of its members in the period since Sturgeon sensationally resigned as first minister in February last year. 

Current first minister Humza Yousaf freely admits that the SNP has suffered electoral fallout from Operation Branchform. The affair was seen as a major factor in the SNP’s crushing defeat in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election last October. The fear now is that this metastasising scandal could overshadow the SNP’s forthcoming general election campaign. There are few more damaging negatives for a political party than the taint of criminality.

The sensational charging of the former chief executive could not have come at a worse moment for Yousaf. The First Minister is under fire over the chaotic introduction of the Hate Crime and Public Order Act and for his equivocation over the Cass Report on gender identity services for young people. Only yesterday, the Scottish government suffered withering criticism from opposition parties and environmental campaigners after it announced the scrapping of its supposedly ‘world leading’ targets for reducing greenhouse gase emissions. In the latest Norstat opinion poll, only 29 per cent of even SNP voters said that Yousaf was doing a good job.

Before Mr Murrell’s re-arrest, the opinion polls were suggesting that the SNP could lose more than half its seats in the general election. It is now anyone’s guess what could happen. It could be an extinction level event for the First Minister and could plunge the party into another leadership election.

It has been a catastrophic year for the Scottish National party and for the leader known to his critics as ‘Humza Useless’. But whatever his failings, the First Minister cannot be held to blame for the latest twist in the Operation Branchform affair. He has been dealt a very poor hand by his predecessors. Even a political genius would have been hard pushed to manage what is arguably now the greatest crisis in SNP history.

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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