Tom Gordon: Why is Nicola Sturgeon’s husband still running the SNP?

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PREMIUM

IT was a PMQs like no other.

Peter Murrell’s Questions before the Holyrood inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair on Monday was supposed to clarify the muddled evidence the SNP chief executive had given to MSPs in December.

Instead, it only deepened the confusion and the poor impression first created by the man who has been the party’s top official for 20 years.

After an hour of twisting, nit-picking revisionism, many MSPs were even more convinced that Mr Murrell was the poorest witness the inquiry had yet seen. And it’s seen some doosies.

There were calls for the Crown Office to investigate if he had made false statements under oath, an offence punishable by up to five years in jail.

I can’t imagine that coming to anything. Prosecutors have better things to do than pursue someone over testimony which appeared more woeful than criminal.

Still, it was particularly woeful, and that matters given Mr Murrell’s role.

The inquiry is looking at the Scottish Government’s bungled probe into sexual misconduct complaints made against Mr Salmond in 2018, which was so “tainted by apparent bias” he had it set aside in a judicial review – but only after the Government dug in and failed to hand over game-changing documents on time.

As a result of the many failings on the Government’s part, Mr Salmond was awarded above average costs of £512,000, while other bills cost the public purse another £200,000 or so.

Mr Salmond’s shrinking fanbase claims he was the victim of plot by people around Ms Sturgeon, both in Government and the SNP, who wanted to thwart his comeback.

As Mr Murrell both runs the SNP operation and is married to its leader, Ms Sturgeon, he is naturally eyed with extreme suspicion by those who believe in the conspiracy.

But there’s more than one reason to look askance at Mr Murrell.

He only returned on Monday after the inquiry made it clear it was ready to compel him to appear after he twice dodged them after taking legal advice. He was right to be a reluctant witness.

In December, he said he both had and hadn’t been in his house when his wife and Mr Salmond had a pivotal meeting there on April 2, 2018.

Pressed on Monday as to which of the two accounts was the false one made under oath, he repeatedly refused to say, answered a question he wasn’t asked, then fell mute.

“We’re getting nowhere here,” said an exasperated Murdo Fraser.

Mr Murrell also backtracked on his previous claim that Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon had been talking about Scottish Government business.

This was a potentially lethal assertion given Ms Sturgeon told parliament she took the meeting and two follow-ups in June and July in her capacity as SNP leader.

If Mr Murrell was right, it would suggest she misled MSPs.

In December, Mr Murrell said: “The issue that was raised [by Mr Salmond]with Nicola at the time was a Scottish Government matter, and Scottish Government business is not for me.”

When Mr Fraser reminded him of this on Monday – “You told me that it was a Scottish Government meeting” – Mr Murrell replied: “I did not say that… it was speculation on my part.”

There was also the moment an MSP told Mr Murrell he just didn’t believe his evidence on another key point.

Channelling his inner Cicero, he replied: “Well, I mean, I think, well, you’re coming to it from, you know, a position of em… but anyway, by the by, em, you know I think Nicola will be here next week, you can ask her what she thought.”

If any other chief executive had put in back-to-back shockers like that in a parliamentary committee, they’d be hauled before an angry board and be dusting off their CV.

If the organisation they ran was also in open revolt against its bosses, with rival outfits springing up to siphon off disaffected customers, that would shorten their tenure even quicker.

But despite the SNP’s descent into turmoil, Mr Murrell’s position is safe.

He not like any other chief executive.

The First Minister jumped to his defence yesterday at FMQs.

“Yes, Peter Murrell did tell the truth,” she told Ruth Davidson.

“Of course, he is perfectly capable of standing up for himself and does not need me to do that.”

But he does. He definitely needs Ms Sturgeon to shield him from the cold winds blowing through the SNP.

Were he not married to her, how long would he last on merit alone?

Ms Sturgeon said the opposition were only gunning for him because of “how integral he has been during the past 15 years to the electoral success of the SNP and, conversely, to the electoral defeats of those parties”.

Which is true up to a point.

But the shine has also come off Mr Murrell and the increasingly fractious party he is supposed to steward.

His continued presence highlights the glaring conflict of interest in having one insulated couple at the apex of the operation, protecting each other rather than doing what is ultimately best for the party.

In the last week alone, the SNP at Westminster have issued three press releases denouncing various forms of “rampant Tory cronyism”.

They may be right, but their complaints are vitiated by the nepotism at the top of the SNP.

On her Mrs Merton show, the late comedian Caroline Aherne famously asked magician’s assistant Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

Scottish politics has its equivalent. “Why is Nicola Sturgeon’s husband still running the SNP?”

Party members aren’t laughing.

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