Peter Murrell is the most powerful man in Scotland but almost no one has heard of him. The SNP chief executive shuns the spotlight but he is one half of Scotland’s ruling class: he is the husband of Nicola Sturgeon.
The Sturgeon-Murrell reign has gone largely unchallenged in the ultra-disciplined SNP — but that is changing. The Sunday Times reports that party activists are plotting a vote of no confidence in Murrell at the next SNP conference. The move stems from one of those intricate vendettas in which Scottish politics and the Sicilian mafia specialise. Lanarkshire Labour never went away, it just rebranded with a saltire.
The four families of this drama are the Sturgeonistas, the Salmondites, the Wokes and the Sensibles, and although some belong to more than one outfit, all are soldiers in the two main feuds that divide the SNP today.
The primary axis is the Sturgeonistas versus the Salmondites. The division is as much about personalities as it is politics but supporters of the former don generally accuse the current don of insufficient loyalty to the man who made her. Although Alex Salmond was Sturgeon’s mentor and appointed her Scottish deputy first minister at the age of 36, the two have broken off the political double act that ousted Labour from its tartan redoubts and made the SNP the natural party of government. The Salmondites also charge Sturgeon with failing to capitalise on Brexit to deliver Scexit. The Sturgeonistas, for their part, regard their opposite numbers as unreconstructed and embittered, so in thrall to the Salmond personality cult that they cannot accept his flaws or his successor’s electoral triumphs.
The secondary beef is between the Wokes and the Sensibles. An influx of right-on youngsters to the SNP national executive committee has, the old hands contend, led to a disproportionate focus on issues like reform of the Gender Recognition Act, police records for mums who skelp their recalcitrant offspring, and seven-year prison sentences for ‘stirring up hatred’. You know, time-honoured bread-and-butter issues for Scottish nationalists.
If all this sounds like Pictish Pictionary, just remember the central theme: everyone absolutely loathes everyone else and they’re all fitting each other up for cement shoes. Joanna Cherry QC, a Salmondite Sensible, hoped to contest Ruth Davidson’s Edinburgh Central seat in next year’s Holyrood election. She was in with a good chance given her popularity with the grassroots and her role in overturning prorogation at the Supreme Court. That is, until the selection rules were changed so that she would have to resign her Commons seat first, making her and her staff unemployed in the middle of a pandemic. The frontrunner for selection is now Sturgeonista Angus Robertson.
Stirling MP Alyn Smith, a Woke who defected to the Sensibles, drew up a proposal to purge the NEC of its many identity-politics centric seats, only for his plan to be leaked to the tabloids and its author cast as a callous clouter of the disabled and the diverse. Smith is one of the party’s best hopes of getting back to a clear, united message, which has naturally made him unpopular with factionalists having far too good a time warring to let peace break out now.
The most audacious gambit of all has been the disclosure of WhatsApp messages allegedly sent by Peter Murrell during the investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond. (The Russia Today host was subsequently tried and found not guilty on all charges, apart from one in which the jury declared the case against him not proven.)
The alleged Murrell missives include:
“Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions… report now with the [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.
While a second reportedly read:
“The more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers. So CPS action would be a good thing.
Police Scotland has launched an investigation into the disclosure. East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill, the uber-Salmondite and former SNP justice minister, has called on Murrell to be suspended from his party post. Writing on the Salmondite-Sensible website Wings over Scotland, he addressed the WhatsApp messages:
“Now those things may or may not be criminal but it’s certainly conduct unbecoming of a party Chief Executive, raising questions about both him and his actions. After all, the SNP is the governing party and seeking to influence criminal investigations is simply unacceptable. Supporting an investigation can be laudable, pressurising those doing the investigating most certainly can’t, and the terms of reference seem clear. You’d have therefore thought action would have been swift and speedy.
Unfortunately for MacAskill, Murrell knows the burial sites of more bodies than your average gravedigger, which safeguards his position for the time being.
It is a testament to how completely the separatists dominate politics north of the border — and how utterly hopeless their opponents are — that even amidst all this, the Tories trail them by 33 points in the opinion polls for next May’s devolved elections. Nat-on-Nat hostilities will be suspended briefly for that campaign, but that is only the start of Nicola Sturgeon’s problems. When she wins, after much sabre-rattling about the beastly Boris denying Scotland its birthright of referendums every weekday and twice on weekends, she will have to account for the failure of a fresh plebiscite to materialise.
The boss and her consigliere are secure for now but only because they deliver electoral victories. It’s when those victories fail to mean anything that the family will be in trouble.