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Scottish National Party chief executive quits after membership numbers dispute

FILE PHOTO: SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell arrives to give evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee in Edinburgh

By David Milliken

LONDON (Reuters) -The chief executive of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), Peter Murrell, said on Saturday that he was resigning with immediate effect after accepting blame for the public being misled about the number of SNP members.

"Responsibility for the SNP's responses to media queries about our membership number lies with me as Chief Executive. While there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome," Murrell said in a statement issued by the party.

Murrell, who has run the party administration since 1999, is the husband of the party's outgoing leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who announced on Feb. 15 that she was stepping down after eight years as Scotland's first minister. Her resignation triggered an SNP leadership contest which concludes on March 27.

Murrell said he had intended to stay as SNP chief executive until after the leadership contest was over.

However, he had faced pressure from within the SNP to go since the party's head of communications, Murray Foote, quit on Friday after previously disputing a media report that party membership had fallen sharply since 2021.

The SNP issued updated figures on Thursday which showed it had 72,186 members as of February, down from 103,884 at the end of 2021.

Foote said in a resignation statement on Friday that he had previously been given inaccurate information on membership numbers by the party's head office.

After Murrell resigned, the SNP said Michael Russell, who holds the lower profile role of party president, would act as chief executive on an interim basis.

"These changes have no impact on the operation of the leadership contest," said Kirsten Oswald, an SNP lawmaker who chairs the party's national executive committee.

The SNP's political opponents said Murrell's resignation raised broader questions about the party's fitness to govern Scotland, where the parliament in Edinburgh has powers over health, education, the justice system and some tax policy.

"The public's real priorities are being ignored as the SNP turns inwards on itself," Craig Hoy, chair of the Scottish Conservatives, said.

(Reporting by David MillikenEditing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff)