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3 June 2021updated 18 Aug 2021 7:01am

Can Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell continue to run the SNP between them?

Sturgeon may not want to fire her husband, but the growing disillusionment with party management is surely worth addressing.

By Chris Deerin

“If you can’t be loved, you’d better be feared” has been a warning to leaders for as long as humankind has had bosses and people to boss around.

It’s not entirely clear which of these, if either, Nicola Sturgeon is these days. There are those in the SNP who continue to cast palms in her path, but their faith in her seems more functional than quasi-spiritual – after all, her brand of technocratic incrementalism hardly makes the juices flow, but nevertheless it is the only game in town when it comes to the possibility of achieving independence. There is nothing messianic about this First Minister.

There was a time when Sturgeon might have been feared, such was her grip on the party structure and her control of patronage and favours. And though little has changed in terms of her grip on power, there seems to be less fear and more disillusionment among her internal critics since the Alex Salmond saga.

How else to read the resignation earlier this week of Joanna Cherry from the SNP’s National Executive Committee? Cherry, who has been one of the more publicly forthright among the rebels, had been part of an earlier attempt to take control of the committee from the clique around Sturgeon and to introduce greater transparency and accountability.

The elections didn’t go quite to plan, but a small slate of reformers made it on. However, in a tweet announcing her resignation, Cherry said that “a number of factors have prevented me from fulfilling the mandate party members gave me to improve transparency & scrutiny & to uphold the party’s constitution”. Anyone expecting a fiery blast from the sharp-tongued SNP MP was left disappointed. “I won’t be making any further comment at this stage,” she said.

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The rebels now seem to be divided into two distinct groups. There are those, such as former SNP MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey, and various local office holders and activists, who quit and joined Salmond’s Alba Party. Then there are those, like Cherry, who stayed put, perhaps waiting for the devolved election to play out and then to determine how secure Sturgeon’s leadership was in its aftermath.

[see also: Nicola Sturgeon has been lucky with her enemies – but trouble lies ahead]

The answer is, of course, very secure. If a fourth-term SNP government – or government of any party – is hardly an outcome to fill the heart with fire, and if her new cabinet hardly threatens to tackle Scotland’s problems with fresh vim and intellectual precision, Sturgeon’s position at the top is under no threat. A fresh mandate, a dominant lead over the opposition parties and a new round of independence warfare with Westminster will keep her in place as long as she deigns it worth her while. It’s easy to see why Cherry and others may be resigned to a period of relative inactivity.

But that does not mean all is well within Scotland’s governing party. There is growing concern about the management of the SNP’s accounts, and in particular the whereabouts of around £600,000 that was raised and supposedly ring-fenced to fight a second independence referendum. Shortly before Cherry’s resignation, Dunfermline and West Fife MP Douglas Chapman stepped down as the party’s national treasurer, claiming he had not been given enough information to do his job. In March, three members of the finance and audit committee walked out.

The ostensible consequence of these departures is that Sturgeon’s grip on the levers of power is tighter than ever. Her husband Peter Murrell has continued in his role as chief executive of the SNP, despite his involvement in the controversy surrounding Salmond and concerns about the corporate health of having a husband and wife with total control of such an important organisation. “The arrangement wouldn’t last five seconds in the private sector,” an SNP source told me. “But there seems to be absolutely nothing anyone can do to change it.”

The absence of good practice and accountability at the top is something Sturgeon will have to deal with before long, particularly as doubts about the state of SNP accounts grow. The appearance of secrecy and mismanagement could make it harder to raise future funds, especially as most of the party funding comes from a handful of large donors.

Then there is the structure of party HQ, which even many of Sturgeon’s supporters believe needs reform. Murrell has been in the top job since Holyrood opened its doors in 1999 – again, this is something that causes good-management types to wince – and critical friends of the First Minister have repeatedly warned that the organisation is too small and underpowered, given the modern scale and might of the SNP.

The question facing Sturgeon is why she insists on maintaining the existing set-up and personnel. It is of course not unusual for party structures to wither over a prolonged period in government – there’s only so much time and focus a leader can spare. But given Murrell’s role, the First Minister has an especially intimate connection to SNP HQ. Even if one can understand a reluctance to fire one’s spouse, the growing disillusionment with party management is surely worth her attention.

Being loved or feared is all very well, but over time the dry rot of disaffection can do its own dramatic form of damage.

[see also: If not now… never? Nicola Sturgeon on the battle for a second Scottish referendum]

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