The SNP is in a ‘tremendous mess’, says chief executive

Michael Russell - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Michael Russell - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The SNP veteran who replaced Nicola Sturgeon’s husband has admitted the party is in a “tremendous mess” and is yet to persuade one of the leadership contenders to abandon the threat of legal action to halt the contest.

Michael Russell, the SNP president who has taken over as interim chief executive after Peter Murrell resigned in disgrace, admitted that things had gone “spectacularly wrong in recent weeks” for the party he joined 49 years ago and that the turmoil is damaging Scotland.

He claimed that his priority was now ensuring a new SNP leader and first minister is elected later this month, but acknowledged that he was yet to convince one of the candidates, Ash Regan, that the voting process was above board.

Ms Regan’s camp has floated the prospect of a court challenge amid claims that party headquarters has offered inappropriate help to Humza Yousaf, the self-declared “continuity candidate” who has vowed to preserve Ms Sturgeon’s legacy.

Her allies have also claimed that members should be given the chance to vote again as many would have filled in ballot papers before Mr Murrell admitted they had been misled about the electorate in the contest. The SNP initially claimed that it had around 100,000 members, only for the party to admit on Thursday that the true total was just 72,000.

'Tremendous mess'

Allies of Ms Regan and Ms Forbes have claimed the dishonesty helped Mr Yousaf’s campaign because a major exodus of activists would have harmed his continuity pitch and aided their calls for major reform.

Mr Russell, speaking to BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show, said that the Yousaf and Forbes campaigns had confidence in the election process but that he was yet to convince Ms Regan.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s a tremendous mess, and we have to clear it up,” he said. “The most important thing in that short term, is that we have a fair electoral process that produces a clear, accepted outcome.

“I’m very pleased to see that Kate Forbes has confirmed her belief in the integrity of the process. That is the same position as Humza Yousaf has taken.

“I’m in dialogue with Ash Regan and I hope to get to the same position. She has questions, I’m very happy to answer those questions.”

Voting process 'full of integrity'

Calls to restart the voting process were backed on Sunday morning by Fergus Mutch, a former head of communications for the SNP and a former election candidate.

Mr Mutch claimed that while he did not endorse “conspiracy theories” around vote rigging, restarting the online election would be “very easy” and help give the result “transparency and legitimacy”.

However, Mr Russell said he did not support pausing the contest, which is due to conclude on March 27.

He said he had spoken to Ms Regan twice since Saturday afternoon and wanted “to be able to persuade her this is a process that is full of integrity”.

He added: “It is a process contracted out to an independent company of unimpeachable integrity, so in these circumstances, I think we need to complete this course, get this done, and then move on.”

Thousands leave SNP

Mr Murrell announced his resignation on Saturday after accepting responsibility for the fiasco over inflated membership figures.

It followed Murray Foote, the party’s top spin doctor, resigning on Friday, suggesting he had been misled by party headquarters into issuing false denials to media reports which turned out to be fully accurate.

Mr Russell claimed that he had “no idea” why the party had misled the public over membership numbers and suggested there should be an investigation into why it had lied to the public.

He said he was “surprised” to find out his party had lost so many members.

The SNP admitted last week only 72,186 members were eligible to vote in the leadership contest, a drop of more than 50,000 on the 125,000 total the nationalists boasted of in 2019.

The tally also represents a drop of more than 30 per cent (31,698) on the last published count of 103,884 at the end of 2021.

This year alone, 10,000 have left the SNP, as Ms Sturgeon became embroiled in a toxic political scandal over her self-ID gender reforms.

'Civil war within the SNP'

On Sunday morning, Mr Yousaf attempted to distance himself from his reputation as the “continuity candidate”, which he had previously been happy to embrace.

Ms Forbes had already sought to seize on the chaos in the party by reiterating her “continuity won’t cut it” pitch and claiming only she could deliver change.

In a video to party members, Mr Yousaf said the last few days had been “challenging” for the SNP and claimed “internal reform of party headquarters” would be one of his “early priorities”.

Responding to Mr Russell’s interview, Craig Hoy, the Scottish Tory chairman, said: “Their squalid leadership race has exposed a civil war within the SNP. It’s a measure of just how bad things have become when a senior party loyalist like Mike Russell describes it as ‘a tremendous mess’ and admits things have gone ‘spectacularly wrong’.

“The tragedy is that this affects the whole of Scotland, rather than merely the SNP. While they are hopelessly divided and fighting like Nats in a sack, they’re incapable of focusing on the real priorities of the Scottish people.”