SNP party membership figures: Humza Yousaf's attempt to explain away party's false denial of 30,000 drop in members raises questions about his judgment – John McLellan

When does a conspiracy become a cock-up, or vice-versa? Is it when a plot goes wrong and the perpetrators claim it was all a terrible mistake, or when a misunderstanding turns into a disastrous chain of events?

The SNP’s leadership hopeful and front-runner Humza Yousaf invited us to believe the latter was responsible for a calamitous 48 hours in which the party lost its top official and head of media after an attempt to discredit an accurate story about declining membership. Perhaps after all its untouchability in recent elections, the SNP hierarchy believed it could fool most of the people all of the time.

Maybe the successful leadership candidate will discover hitherto unrecognised depths of persuasion which will continue the success, but if that’s the best the favourite Mr Yousaf can do to explain how communications chief Murray Foote was unwittingly sent out to lie at the behest of chief executive Peter Murrell, then the genie of SNP chaos will enjoy freedom from the bottle for some time to come.

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To buy his cock-up theory requires acceptance there were some crossed wires between Mr Murrell and Mr Foote; they didn’t really mean to say the Sunday Mail story revealing SNP membership was down by 30,000 was “drivel”; and they genuinely thought that not knowing the motivation for each departure meant they could rubbish a story which linked the slump with the row over gender recognition reform and other recent controversies.

Humza Yousaf, seen at a community cafe in Dalkeith, claims there was a cock-up, not a conspiracy, over the SNP's membership figures (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Humza Yousaf, seen at a community cafe in Dalkeith, claims there was a cock-up, not a conspiracy, over the SNP's membership figures (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Humza Yousaf, seen at a community cafe in Dalkeith, claims there was a cock-up, not a conspiracy, over the SNP's membership figures (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It requires the acceptance that a party which tied itself in knots over the Alex Salmond affair and ran a coach and horses through proper processes in so doing, which has revelled in its reputation for political mastery, and was managed by the astute coordinator of a campaign machine which delivered eight election victories, had suddenly become a hapless bunch of ingenues who didn’t understand what they were doing.

Like many commentators over the weekend, I know Murray Foote well, a multi-award-winning former editor of the Daily Record who is well-liked across the political and media spectrum, and the speed and manner with which he tendered his resignation on Friday when it became clear he’d been deployed to close down a story his boss knew to be true, is as much evidence as is needed to believe he was duped like everyone else. He’s also a passionate man and, if there was a fault, it was in using the typically expressive language of popular journalism to do his boss’s bidding.

Just because it’s been a massive cock-up doesn’t also mean there was no conspiracy, and the question is not so much if Mr Murrell understood what he was doing, but why he thought it so important to kill the Sunday Mail story. If, as he now says, it was his intention to quit when the leadership contest was over, only he can explain what possible advantage he thought there was in an aggressive denial of something which was bound to emerge, and in compromising someone popular amongst journalists when control of the media narrative has lain at the heart of the SNP’s masterclass of style over substance.

Further, as many SNP supporters have been keen to point out, even though the loss of 30,000 subscribers is somewhat unfortunate, 72,000 is still an enviable following of which the other parties can only dream. But in first attacking the Sunday Mail and then only reluctantly revealing the true number after pressure from the Kate Forbes and Ash Regan campaigns, it turned what would have been a 24-hour story into a month-long saga of secrecy and cover-up which culminated in the chief executive’s premature departure.

Mr Yousaf has form for trying to pass off serious government intervention as a minor blunder, and ironically it also involves the Sunday Mail. Four years ago, just as the paper was about to reveal video footage of Saughton prison officers dragging inmate Allan Marshall to his death, the Scottish Government sought an interdict on a Saturday night to block publication, which involved the Court of Session being convened at midnight. The bid was approved by Mr Yousaf, then Justice Secretary, who at a subsequent meeting claimed it was all a misunderstanding, he was at a family event, it was all a bit rushed, you know how it is, there was no threat to media freedom, etc. I accepted his explanation, that he didn’t fully understand the implications of what he was signing off, but what does that say about the way the man who would be First Minister makes decisions under pressure of time?

Perhaps unwittingly, and there is a pattern emerging, in trying to pass off the latest events as just a cock-up, Mr Yousaf undermines his claim not to be a continuity candidate. Excusing away what by any interpretation was a targeted series of actions which also sucked in The National newspaper – whose staff are furious about being used – doesn’t sound like someone who genuinely wants to distance himself from what went before.

Whoever wins the contest, without Nicola Sturgeon, her husband, John Swinney and its communications chief, the new leader will have internal rebuilding to do as well as coping with a slump in the polls, and that will require a vision for the future which all candidates are struggling to articulate beyond the membership fodder of independence in five years. Like Rishi Sunak’s team last summer, Kate Forbes’ supporters are trying to remain publicly optimistic but fear transfers from Ash Regan’s supporters will not materialise and Mr Yousaf will win, bringing more of the same from a solid party man whose entire working life has been spent in the SNP, and who can excuse away a reputational catastrophe as a slip.

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Maybe normal service will resume after March 27, but with even stand-in party chief Mike Russell admitting the party’s in a mess, it will take more than a cheeky smile and a shrug of the shoulders to clear it up.



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