Nicola Sturgeon’s top spin doctor quits in row over SNP membership 'lies'
Turmoil engulfing the SNP deepened further on Friday after Nicola Sturgeon’s top spin doctor quit and blamed senior party figures for the “lies” he had personally promoted.
Murray Foote, a former editor of the Daily Record, resigned as the SNP’s head of communications and research at Holyrood after he ferociously denied a report of a mass exodus of party members which this week was proven to be accurate.
The office Mr Foote runs had also issued a series of misleading briefings to journalists about the number of members the SNP had, following Ms Sturgeon’s resignation. Staffers repeatedly suggested that the total was around 100,000 when in fact, it had dropped to just 72,186.
Mr Foote insisted that he had been acting “in good faith and as a courtesy to colleagues at party HQ” by issuing “agreed party responses” to journalists.
He said that it had since become clear that there had been “serious issues with these responses”.
He added: “Consequently, I concluded this created a serious impediment to my role and I resigned my position with the SNP Group at Holyrood.”
The resignation will raise further questions over the operation of SNP headquarters under the stewardship of Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive and Ms Sturgeon’s husband.
The party is already subject to a long-running police investigation around the alleged misuse of donations for independence referendum campaigns that never happened.
Mr Foote announced his resignation just minutes after BBC Radio Scotland broadcast an interview with Alex Salmond in which the former first minister savaged his former party for misleading the public over the membership, who will choose the next First Minister.
Mr Salmond said that while the exodus of members had been “catastrophic” for the SNP, the damage to its reputation caused by political blunders and “lies” over the figures had been even more damaging.
“More important than the reduction and membership is the reduction of credibility,” Mr Salmond said. “It is a fact that the SNP membership, over the last year or so, has declined by probably a lot more than 30,000. And it’s a fact that the SNP lied about it.”
Mr Foote publicly claimed in February that a report in the Sunday Mail claiming the party had recently lost around 30,000 members was “wrong by about 30,000” and branded it “b------s”.
However, the figure released by the party this week showed it had 72,186 members, 31,698 fewer than the previously published figure.
The SNP reluctantly agreed to publish the figure only after leadership candidates Kate Forbes and Ash Regan demanded its release and raised doubts over the election process being overseen by Mr Murrell’s office.
Sharp fall in members
Ms Sturgeon’s controversial gender recognition reforms have been cited as a likely factor in the sharp fall in members, with 10,000 leaving during this year alone.
Liz Lloyd, Ms Sturgeon’s closest aide, also announced that she would be quitting the Scottish Government with the First Minister departs office.
Her announcement came just hours after Ms Regan raised concerns over Ms Lloyd’s role in helping Humza Yousaf’s campaign, in a meeting with John-Paul Marks, the Scottish Government’s most senior mandarin.
Ms Lloyd is a taxpayer-funded SNP special advisor, leading sources close to Ms Regan to warn that her role in the leadership campaign was inappropriate as it would decide her “potential new boss”.
Both Ms Regan and Ms Forbes would conduct a major clearout of SNP figures in senior behind-the-scenes roles, while Mr Yousaf is expected to largely retain Ms Sturgeon’s staff.
It is understood that despite the release of the membership figure, Ms Forbes’ campaign is yet to be fully reassured that the process to choose a new leader will be fair.
Mr Salmond claimed the election was being conducted in a “ramshackle” manner amid reports that former members are still receiving ballot papers.
“Frankly, I doubt if the SNP right now has 72,000 valid members,” he said. “I know the ramshackle process they have and that they’ve been concealing the decline in their membership. These are facts.”
Russell Findlay, the Scottish Tory MSP, said Mr Foote’s resignation had exposed a “rotten SNP leadership” who “deliberately lied to the press and public”.
He added: "We wish our best to Mr Foote, who was clearly told false information and is the fall guy for the SNP hierarchy.”
An SNP spokesman said: “We are disappointed and saddened that Murray felt the need to take this decision.
“He has been a great colleague over the past few years, and we wish him well for whatever he decides to do next.”