Why SNP chief executive Peter Murrell is facing an internal revolt

Having been accused of conspiring against Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband’s long reign may finally be ending. 

 

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“If you believe some things that have been written, our relationship is like something from Dallas,” Nicola Sturgeon has said of her marriage to Peter Murrell.

In a sense, the comparison has always seemed an odd one. Murrell, the SNP’s long-serving chief executive, is balding, well upholstered, and peers owlishly from behind frameless spectacles, and more obviously suits the nickname “Penfold” given to him by journalists. However, the ongoing inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Alex Salmond suggests there may be more of the JR Ewing to him than meets the eye. Indeed, the question of whether he can survive in his job for much longer is proving quite the cliffhanger.

Murrell has been the party's chief executive since 1999, and since the SNP took power at Holyrood in 2007 his has been one of the most powerful roles in Scotland. Yet he has been able to remain remarkably private and under-scrutinised. An online search will throw up little about his background, his views or his activities. 

Now 55, he grew up in the Edinburgh suburb of Corstorphine, where he was in the Boys Brigade with John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister. Murrell has been an SNP lifer – for many years he ran Salmond’s constituency office in Peterhead, which later helped him secure the top party job.

“Personality-wise, he’s not unlike Nicola,” says a friend of the couple. “He’s private and quite introverted, a hard worker and diligent.”

Allies praise his role in professionalising party HQ and in creating the triumphant campaigning force that is the modern SNP. He stepped into the 2014 referendum campaign when the Yes side was struggling, and has supported and helped position his wife during her stratospheric career. “He’s been in charge over the period the SNP has grown so much – so he’s either lucky or he’s had something to do with it,” says a friend. He is well rewarded for his work, with his salary thought to be somewhere north of £100,000. Another SNP insider says that “Peter’s mostly pleasant and well-organised, although he’s known to have flashes of temper around the office.”

The chief executive is only rolled out publicly for the occasional PR stunt in support of Sturgeon. In a joint Sunday Times article in 2007, headlined “The Two of Us”, she recounts how her “first memory of Peter, from the 1980s, was that he was Mr Gadget Man. He wore a belt with all his gizmos on it, including a very early Psion organiser. I was transfixed. How can anybody walk about with that attached to his belt?”

Murrell is typically more guarded: “Our daily routine has to start with coffee and the papers… It’s like having a resident newspaper reviewer – she skim-reads and then gives me a precis… That spark is always there. We are constantly having conversations that I’m amazed by.”

Despite this long acquaintance it was only during the 2003 Holyrood election, when Murrell was Sturgeon’s campaign director, that the couple “found love”, as the Sun put it at the time. They married in 2010. 

The First Minister’s biographer David Torrance quotes Murrell as saying that “when it comes down to it, there is more to life than politics. Loving Nicola gives me a feeling of completeness.” During their engagement he paid £1,500 for a portrait by a French artist entitled “Naughty Nicola”, which displayed his fiancée dressed in leather and with a pierced belly button, brandishing a whip.

But politics has inevitably dominated their marriage, and not without controversy. Since Sturgeon became Scotland’s leader in 2014, questions have regularly been asked about the appropriateness of her husband’s professional role. Critics within the SNP argue the ruling clique is too small, and worry that issues are discussed and stitched up in the marital home, as Murrell cooks and Sturgeon irons, before others can have their say. “If this was a private company and you had a husband and wife as chair and chief exec, eyebrows would be raised,” admits one SNP insider. It’s thought Salmond raised the governance problem when he passed the baton on to his protégée Sturgeon, but, says a source, “it went down like a bucket of cold sick”.

To the world outside the bubble, this arrangement has largely been of interest only insofar as it offers an insight into the character and lifestyle of this fascinating First MinisterNow, though, Murrell has been dragged into the spotlight. As the Holyrood committee investigating the government’s handling of the Salmond affair progresses, evidence has emerged of behaviour that troubles even his allies.

The Times says it has viewed a WhatsApp exchange in which Murrell appeared to suggest pressure should be put on police to ensure Salmond was being investigated in both Scotland and London. It is claimed that in a message sent on 25 January 2019, the day after Salmond was first charged with multiple sexual assaults, Murrell said: “Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions… report now with the PF [Procurator Fiscal] on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London.”

A second message sent the same day is alleged to read: “TBH the more fronts he [Salmond] is having to firefight on the better for all complainers. So CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] action would be a good thing.”

These messages appear to support claims made by Salmond following his acquittal that there had been some kind of internal SNP conspiracy against him. Allies of Murrell admit it looks bad: “The messages look horrific, whether they’re out of context or whatever,” says one.

In his submission to the Holyrood inquiry, Murrell has claimed he was unaware of two meetings between Salmond and Sturgeon about the assault allegations, despite them being held in his and Sturgeon's home in Glasgow early on in the investigation into Salmond. Sturgeon had told him she “couldn’t discuss the details” of the meetings, he insisted. Investigation committee members are also unhappy at the limited documentation he has provided to them.

Beyond this, there is disquiet that party HQ has been changing internal rules to prevent Sturgeon’s critics being selected for Holyrood seats ahead of next year’s Scottish election. There have been reports that Murrell could face a no-confidence vote at the next SNP conference, and that members are to seek his suspension at the next meeting of the party's National Executive Committee.

Taken altogether, it’s easy to see why we might be entering the final stages of the Sturgeon-Murrell duumvirate. Change is needed anyway, say some senior SNP figures. Party HQ has not grown or developed in the way it should since 2014 and remains a relatively small operation. Despite the electoral success, the mood within the party is low – “We’re flying in the polls, but to be honest it feels like we’re sitting at 20 per cent,” says one source. There has not been enough time and effort put into preparing the case for the next independence referendum, says another.

“We need regeneration,” says an insider. “Peter has been great but you’d have to be superhuman to run things for 20 years and still have the necessary energy at this stage. So we need a new face at the top of the party structure. What will be a real shame is if with that length of service, and with all he’s achieved, he goes with a stain on his reputation rather than our thanks.”

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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