No matter the problems at the top of the SNP, Sturgeon is hardly likely to sack her own husband
HERE’s a question for the pub quiz, assuming it’s Covid-compliant: who’s the most unsackable man in Scottish politics?
At first glance, you might take your pick of the upper echelons of the SNP administration — from John Swinney to Humza Yousaf.
But you get bonus points if you plumped for head honcho Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive — the numero uno administrator.
He’s an enigmatic type, or has been until recently: we know from Twitter that he cooks for his wife Nicola Sturgeon, and they squabble over decorating the Christmas tree.
But this benign, perhaps put-upon, homebody is also the power-broker at the top of an organisation in danger of losing its reputation as a well-oiled machine.
And now the inner workings of the SNP’s finances are under scrutiny as never before — while Mr Murrell has become an increasingly divisive figure, even for veteran party loyalists.
Yet he’s still in situ — and it’s hard to conceive of circumstances that would propel him out of the top job — by dint of his helpful association with the First Minister.
His most recent trouble stems from the whereabouts of £600,000 donated to the SNP to bolster the independence cause — donors and others are asking where it is, or how it was spent.
Mr Swinney, Miss Sturgeon’s trusted consigliere, has insisted that to his knowledge there is no police investigation, while Police Scotland says it’s continuing to ‘assess a complaint of alleged financial irregularity’.
Now it’s emerged that the SNP returned a donation to the independence fund after the man who gifted the cash threatened to go to the police alleging fraud.
The official who sent the email assuring the disgruntled donor that it would be refunded was none other than ever-efficient Mr Murrell himself, in an email signed off with ‘kind regards’ from ‘Peter’.
The man had written to the party raising concern about that £600,000 fund, which was meant to reignite the somewhat moribund drive for independence.
Secrecy about how the cash was used was one factor that led SNP treasurer Douglas Chapman and national executive committee member Joanna Cherry to quit party roles.
Mr Chapman explained in a tweet on May 29: ‘Despite having a resounding mandate from members to introduce more transparency into the party’s finances, I have not received the support or financial information to carry out the fiduciary duties of national treasurer.’
Their departures followed the resignation this year of three members of the SNP’s finance and audit committee over concerns about not seeing the party’s full financial accounts.
Whatever the truth of this messy affair, it’s clear something has gone awry in the nerve centre of the campaign to create a brave new socialist nirvana.
The reason for the questions about what’s happened to the cash is clear — despite their party being dedicated solely to dismantling the UK, its disillusioned grassroots are beginning to wonder when, if ever, the campaign might materialise.
After all, there’s not much point in launching one when the chances of the UK Government allowing a referendum to proceed are less than zero.
Mr Murrell, custodian of the SNP’s riches, is untroubled, it seems, by the prospect of police poring over the books, with a party spokesman claiming that a ‘tiny’ number of individuals — ‘no longer associated with the SNP’ — had asked for their money back.
But it’s hardly the first time that Mr Murrell has been in the firing line — back in September last year, former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill became the first Nationalist MP to call for him to be suspended.
His intervention came after a copy of WhatsApp texts appeared to show Mr Murrell calling for pressure to be put on police investigating the former First Minister Alex Salmond.
Mr Murrell admitted sending them — but later said he regretted the wording he’d used.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross called for Miss Sturgeon to sack her husband — which she took about as seriously as every other call to axe anyone in her inner circle.
You might recall that at the time the long-running Salmond inquiry was well under way, the one that concluded Miss Sturgeon misled parliament — though another independent probe found otherwise (in a heavily redacted report).
In a surreal virtual appearance before MSPs in February, Mr Murrell was accused of being ‘obstructive’.
He was asked whether there was anyone else in the room with him at the time — and explained he was looking at magpies.
The amateur ornithologist sought to give the impression of a man who knew next to nothing about his wife’s business.
But some were unconvinced by his performance — and one MSP, Labour’s Jackie Baillie, wrote to the Crown Office suggesting Mr Murrell might have perjured himself.
The Crown is still studying the letter, five months on, though admittedly it was a bit busy at the time after prosecutors were accused of trying to censor Mr Salmond’s explosive evidence to the probe examining his botched harassment investigation.
Maybe the job of deciding what action, if any, should be taken against Mr Murrell will fall to the new Lord Advocate — the current one, James Wolffe, is stepping down.
Responding to the toxic fallout of the Salmond row, the government says it is trying to reform the office of the country’s top law officer so they don’t get a seat in Cabinet.
Mr Wolffe’s successor will be appointed on Miss Sturgeon’s recommendation, rubber-stamped by parliament, which is effectively controlled by the SNP thanks to its alliance with the Greens.
Deciding whether to prosecute the First Minister’s husband for perjury, if it ever came to that, is the kind of thorny dilemma the new law chief could do without.
You might even think that opting to do so would be pretty much the dictionary definition of a risky career move.
For now, thanks to his other half, Mr Murrell might well be Teflon — despite the growing opposition to his continued tenure within the party ranks.
If he goes, it’s hard to imagine Miss Sturgeon clinging on for long — they come as a mutually dependent package.
Ousting her spouse would make for awkward breakfast table chat, and she might no longer be able to boast on social media about the wonderful dinners he’s cooked for her.
Yet, whatever the outcome of these internal power struggles and high-level legal ruminations, Mr Murrell has been thrust into the spotlight in a way that he’s likely to find not altogether pleasant.
No longer the bit-part player in his wife’s blander tweets about their unremarkable domestic life, he’s the protagonist in yet another SNP drama that threatens to expose its dirty laundry — and create further splits in a movement that is slowly tearing itself apart.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 8, 2021.