Peter Murrell, the most powerful man in Scotland, gave evidence under oath to the Alex Salmond inquiry on Tuesday. The SNP chief executive (and husband to Nicola Sturgeon) made a number of statements that already are under scrutiny, and others that soon may be.
1) Why doesn’t Sturgeon and Murrell’s evidence match up?
Central to the committee’s attempts to shed light on Nicola Sturgeon’s actions has been trying to establish where she considers her role as SNP leader to end and her role as Scottish First Minister to begin. In her written submission to the inquiry, Sturgeon said she agreed to meet Salmond at her home on April 2, 2018 because:
“‘I thought Mr Salmond may be about to resign from the SNP and that, as a result of this or other aspects of how he intended to handle the matter he was dealing with, the party could have been facing a public/media issue that we would require to respond to. As Party Leader, I considered it important that I knew if this was in fact the case in order that I could prepare the party to deal with what would have been a significant issue.’
When Murrell was asked in what role Sturgeon held the meetings, he told the committee: ‘I was not aware of the capacity in which she was having those meetings.’ However, in an earlier written submission he said of the April 2 meeting: ‘The nature of Nicola’s job means that when she tells me she can’t discuss something, I don’t press it’ and confirmed that ‘Nicola’s job’ referred to her role as First Minister.
Committee member Jackie Baillie pointed out the apparent conflict in these assertions. Sturgeon said she met Salmond as party leader. Murrell implied she had met him as First Minister. Murrell rejected the suggestion their evidence was at odds but, as Baillie put it: ‘It is in black and white and the record will show that.’
2) What’s up with WhatsApp?
Murrell was questioned by Baillie about the existence of a WhatsApp group. Baillie said the chat had been ‘convened by the chief operating officer’ of the SNP (Sue Ruddick) on the day Alex Salmond won a judicial review against the Scottish Government’s probe into sexual harassment complaints against him.
Murrell told Baillie ‘I do not know anything about a WhatsApp group’ but added: ‘I am not on WhatsApp; it is not a social media platform that I use.’ However, the Scottish Sun found a WhatsApp account linked to his mobile number with activity last recorded on November 22. On Wednesday, Murrell wrote to the inquiry to concede that he does have WhatsApp on his phone but again claimed that he doesn’t use it.
3) When did he know Sturgeon was meeting with Salmond?
In reference to the April 2 Salmond/Sturgeon meeting, Murrell told the committee: ‘I was not aware that he was coming to the house.’ However, he later stated: ‘I think at some point on the previous day I was aware that Alex was coming to the house.’
4) Was he home during the meetings or not?
Murrell told the committee three times that he wasn’t home during the meetings between his wife and Alex Salmond. Later, committee member Andy Wightman highlighted a line from Murrell’s written submission on the April 2 and July 14 meetings, and his ‘sense that something serious was being discussed’ at them, and asked how he got that sense. Murrell began to tell him: ‘I came home from work and there were still people in the house at that point’. Wightman then interjected and reminded him: ‘[Y]ou said that you were not at your home on 2 April’. Murrell explained: ‘I arrived home not long before the meeting ended.’
Murrell’s evidence changed — substantively — during the hearing. He went from not being there during the meeting to being there during the meeting (‘before the meeting ended’). The explanation for the contradiction could be entirely benign — slip of the tongue, memory lapse — but an explanation is surely required.
5) Why did he not speak to Salmond a year before any allegations became public?
Murrell told the committee he had worked with Salmond for around ‘four decades’. Originally Murrell was an employee in his constituency office, then later they worked together as leader and party CEO. Asked about the meetings at the Sturgeon-Murrell home, he said: ‘Nicola meeting Alex was not an uncommon event or anything unusual’. At the same time, he told the inquiry: ‘the last time we spoke was probably at some point during the 2017 election. I have not spoken to him since.’
Why? Certainly, Salmond’s post-2017 election behaviour will have caused Murrell all sorts of headaches (joining Russia Today, fronting an eyebrow-raising one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe) but he was still a prominent member of the SNP, a mentor and colleague of long standing, and someone whose meetings with Sturgeon were not ‘uncommon’. Murrell told the inquiry he ‘became aware’ of the harassment complaints ‘when the matter became public in August 2018’. When, then, did all communication cease more than a year earlier?
6) Does the SNP really not do crisis strategy or communications?
Committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton pressed Murrell on his claims that he was not told in advance about the April 2 meeting. Since Sturgeon said she went into the meeting ‘with the expectation or belief that Alex Salmond might be about to resign from the party’, and since this was a threat to the SNP, wouldn’t it have been right for her to involve Murrell or the party’s media team in an internal or external party communications plan?
Murrell replied: ‘I do not think that you can pre-plan for a crisis. When you are dealing with the lives that we lead – in which we deal with things 24 hours a day, seven days a week—you deal with issues as they happen.’ The assertion that you can’t ‘pre-plan for a crisis’ goes against the very principle of crisis communications, a branch of public relations that all major political parties use.
The SNP runs the sharpest, most sophisticated communications operation in UK politics. The idea that crisis strategy and comms are not part of that stretches plausibility. More to the point, if the CEO of Scotland’s governing party doesn’t strategise for potential crises, what exactly does his role involve?
7) Do Sturgeon and Murrell really never talk about government business?
In attempting to frame Sturgeon’s meetings with Salmond as a matter of ‘government business’ (appearing to contradict Sturgeon’s version of events), Murrell said: ‘Nicola is very confidential about the process; she has been a minister for a very long time and we just do not talk about government business.’
This is an extraordinary statement. It requires us to believe not only that husband and wife never talk about work, but that the most political couple in Scotland never discuss the business of the government that one of them runs under the auspices of the party the other one is chief executive of. This is not the equivalent of claiming Tony Blair and Cherie Booth never talked shop, it’s the equivalent of claiming Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson never did.