Arrests, a luxury motorhome and a power couple’s fall: The inside story of SNP police probe

Politics

The once “untouchable” SNP is enduring humiliation amid its biggest crisis in decades.

The governing party of Scotland has been tearing itself apart in recent months as its finances come under the spotlight.

Polls have plummeted, arrests have been made, suspects detained, and a luxury motorhome seized as a long-running police investigation picks up pace.

But what is going on?

The SNP is a powerful political operation. It is seen as the dominant face of the Scottish independence cause, and with that position comes cash.

Large numbers of people are willing to donate and become paid-up members of a party they hope and believe will deliver their dream.

The SNP, under Nicola Sturgeon’s watch, boasted of soaring membership figures. It peaked at more than 100,000 – solidifying it as the third largest in the UK.

More on Humza Yousaf

There was a sense for a long time the SNP hierarchy was untouchable.

The Sturgeon iron-fist operation rarely led to dissent and internal squabbles never really played out in public. The first minister was known for her discipline, but some argued she ran the party on a “need to know” basis where critics who disagreed were quickly side-lined.

Salmond’s ‘wouldn’t end well’ warning

This is a tale of a political power couple. The two at the top of the SNP were married. Ms Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell was the chief executive since 1999.

Former first minister Alex Salmond told me in recent months he warned the pair that the relationship would not work professionally and wouldn’t end well.

Politically, under Ms Sturgeon and Mr Murrell, the SNP was an election-winning machine.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon with husband Peter Murrell as they cast their votes in the 2019 General Election at Broomhouse Park Community Hall in Glasgow.
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Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell were at the top of the SNP

The pair won every election in Scotland in the 3,000 days they worked together. But they failed to achieve their main mission of securing Scotland’s independence.

Many raised concerns about too few people making all the decisions. Others questioned their strategy and what was really going on behind closed doors.

To appease the SNP faithful, Ms Sturgeon would issue a rallying cry every few years about “kick-staring” the drive towards a second referendum vote.

Where had the money had gone?

The party raised £666,953 through various appeals between 2017 and 2020, saying they would spend the funds on an indyref2 campaign.

But in the subsequent years, audited financial accounts issued via the Electoral Commission revealed a party with far less cash in the bank.

Some supporters had queries after accounts showed it had just under £97,000 in the bank at the end of 2019, and total net assets of about £272,000.

The people who had donated raised concerns about where the rest of the money had gone.

A leaked video of Ms Sturgeon taken in 2021 at a meeting of the SNP’s ruling body appears to show her warning NEC members to be “very careful” about suggesting there were “any problems” with the accounts.

In what looked like an angry exchange, she said: “There are no reasons for people to be concerned about the party’s finances, and all of us need to be careful about not suggesting that there is.”

Around the same time, the SNP’s national treasurer quit – claiming he was not given enough information to do the job.

Douglas Chapman, the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, resigned after only being in post for a few months.

It was reported at the time that his decision to stand down was linked to a mounting row over the ringfenced independence cash.

Police received formal complaints

Transparency was clearly becoming an issue.

The situation became even more serious for the SNP around that same period when formal complaints were received by Police Scotland.

Detectives began probing fundraising and finances and launched Operation Branchform.

In June 2022, Mr Murrell provided a personal loan of £107,620 to the SNP to help with “cashflow” problems.

His wife then faced awkward questions when the news became public.

She claimed she couldn’t “recall” when she first heard about this large loan involving her partner. The first minister looked uncomfortable and attempted to swiftly move on. It was an eyebrow-raising episode.

Then came the bombshell resignation from Ms Sturgeon, who declared she no longer had the stamina to continue.

The timing took most people by surprise.

The first minister denied it was related to “short-term pressures” and within weeks began her farewell tour of the television studios, including Sky’s Beth Rigby Interviews and ITV’s Loose Women.

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Ms Sturgeon’s interview with Sky’s Beth Rigby

The SNP suffered a bruising and bitter leadership contest which became mired in mudslinging and controversy.

One of the biggest own goals was the saga surrounding the candidates not being given access to how many members were eligible to vote.

The party had previously denied a newspaper report claiming it had lost 30,000 members in recent years.

After a humiliating climbdown the SNP finally conceded the story was true. Red faces all round.

Amid growing claims of secrecy, which threatened to plunge the leadership race into chaos, Mr Murrell quit as the long-standing boss. His Saturday morning departure overshadowed his wife’s final moments in office.

In the end, Humza Yousaf narrowly defeated Kate Forbes to become Ms Sturgeon’s successor.

His premiership stalled before it even began.

Read more:
Sturgeon and Murrell: The downfall of SNP power couple in less than 150 days

Nicola Sturgeon says SNP crisis beyond her ‘worst nightmares’
Who is at the centre of the police investigation into the SNP?

It quickly became public “the Murrells” had failed to disclose to the new first minister that the party he now leads had been without auditors for its financial files. Accountants, who had worked for the SNP for a decade, quit last year.

Withholding this vital information from so many senior figures in the nationalist ranks caused further embarrassment and added fuel to the fire of “cover-up” claims.

Then came the biggest bombshell of all. Mr Murrell was arrested.

Uniformed officers swarmed the Murrell/Sturgeon house on the outskirts of Glasgow. A white evidence tent was erected on the front lawn.

Officers from Police Police outside the home of former chief executive of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Peter Murrell, in Uddingston, Glasgow, after he was "released without charge pending further investigation", after he was arrested on Wednesday as part of a probe into the party's finances. Picture date: Thursday April 6, 2023.
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Police Scotland officers at the home of Ms Sturgeon and Mr Murrell
Officers from Police Scotland outside the home of former chief executive of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Peter Murrell, in Uddingston, Glasgow, after he was "released without charge pending further investigation", after he was arrested on Wednesday as part of a probe into the party's finances. Picture date: Thursday April 6, 2023.
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The search was part of a probe into the SNP’s funding and finances

Detectives released their “suspect” without charge after almost 12 hours of questions. Ms Sturgeon later described this as her “worst nightmare”.

The scenes were unthinkable just a few short months ago. The house of Scotland’s political power couple raided and searched for more than 30 hours.

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Sturgeon: Last few weeks ‘very difficult’

The following day I, and every political journalist in Scotland, were invited to the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh for a briefing with Mr Yousaf.

We entered the same room where Ms Sturgeon had made that infamous resignation speech a few weeks before.

This time the lectern and rows of chairs were replaced with sofas in a circle with tea, coffee and cakes at the edge of the room.

Mr Yousaf arrived, rolled up his sleeves and answered every question from reporters before camera crews were summoned to record interviews for TV, including Sky News.

This was a far cry from the Sturgeon regime and was clearly a deliberate strategy to send out a signal of resetting relations.

Over the following days, the Sunday newspapers revealed a picture of a large, luxury motorhome being seized by detectives outside of the Fife home of Mr Murrell’s 92-year-old mother. It was thought the vehicle could be worth more than £100,000.

The chaos was set to continue. What on earth did a political party need a campervan for?

First Minister Humza Yousaf speaking to the media, after he visited a nursery at Crookston Castle Primary School, Glasgow, to see how a project to integrate child poverty interventions and bring services together across the city is having a positive impact for families. Picture date: Thursday April 13, 2023.
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First Minister Humza Yousaf didn’t know about the SNP motorhome until he became party leader

I confronted Mr Yousaf about when he became aware the motorhome was an “SNP asset”.

He confirmed it was owned by the party and had been kept in the dark about it until he became leader.

It led to further questions about the extent of the police probe on the party’s finances.

The SNP accounts for 2021 include new “motor vehicles” worth £80,632 after depreciation among the party’s assets. There has been no confirmation whether this figure is a reference to the luxury campervan.

Those accounts were signed off by the national treasurer Colin Beattie.

He became the second “suspect” to be arrested by Police Scotland, two weeks after Mr Murrell.

Mr Beattie, who has overseen the SNP’s finances for almost two decades, was released without charge pending further investigations.

Former SNP treasurer Colin Beattie in the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh. Picture date: Wednesday April 26, 2023.
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Former SNP treasurer Colin Beattie was arrested and later released as part of the police probe

When questioned by reporters, the 71-year-old first said he had no knowledge of the motorhome before later clarifying he was aware.

A bizarre episode in the SNP soap opera.

Mr Yousaf is attempting to get a grip of the party’s governance, but the polls paint a grim picture for his immediate electoral fortunes.

Is that the cost of excessive control by a closed circle run by Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell? Sir Keir Starmer certainly hopes so.

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