SNP left bruised and battered after week from hell - Peter Murrell arrest, climate change U-turn, ferry delay

The SNP have endured a torrid week amid waning support for First Minister Humza Yousaf

If the Easter recess proved unusually taxing for the SNP, it did not take long for things to go from bad to worse.

After a break from parliamentary jousting that offered little in the way of respite for Humza Yousaf’s administration, with continuing criticism of its contentious hate crime legislation from senior figures such as Lord Hope of Craighead, the First Minister returned to Holyrood knowing his party was facing its most testing Westminster election campaign for years.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Given all that has transpired since, that test now looks more severe than ever. Only a few weeks after marking the first anniversary of his premiership, and the 90th anniversary of his party, the ship helmed by Mr Yousaf is in increasingly choppy waters. In truth, he was not responsible for all of the tumultuous setbacks faced by his party in recent days, but make no mistake – he is responsible for charting its recovery.

The SNP’s week from hell began with accusations that its ministers had “buried their heads in the sand” by effectively issuing a holding statement following the publication of the Cass Review’s final report into gender identity services for children and young people. While the NHS in England confirmed in March that puberty blockers would no longer be prescribed to children, the response in Scotland was drawn out.

The Government said it would “take the time to consider the findings”, a stance reiterated on Tuesday by public health minister Jenni Minto, who said it would be inappropriate to respond too quickly. That position provided easy attack lines for opposition parties. In any case, events later in the week would subject it to even greater scrutiny.

Wednesday brought further challenges, with a Conservative bid to repeal the Hate Crime Act debated in Parliament before being voted down by the Government and other opposition MSPs. Although the motion, brought by shadow justice secretary Russell Findlay, had little prospect of success, it served to amplify the ongoing criticism of the Bill.

That morning, however, a bigger problem for Mr Yousaf began to emerge. Rumours began to circulate throughout Holyrood the Government was expected to water down its legal climate targets, with plans for a statement to be made to Parliament on Thursday afternoon. By early evening, the rumours had been confirmed, with The Scotsman reporting that a significant climbdown was imminent, meaning the Government’s commitment to reducing 1990 levels of emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 would be removed from legislation, subject to the approval of MSPs.

Former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, the husband of Nicola Sturgeon, was charged in connection with the embezzlement of funds from the party. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesFormer SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, the husband of Nicola Sturgeon, was charged in connection with the embezzlement of funds from the party. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, the husband of Nicola Sturgeon, was charged in connection with the embezzlement of funds from the party. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Ironically, the announcement came just a day after it emerged SNP ministers and officials spent almost £200,000 of taxpayers’ money during their trip to Dubai to attend the COP28 UN climate summit last year. Government sources stressed the move would pave the way for an updated climate change plan tasked with hitting the 2045 net zero target. Some observers pointed out the news hardly came as a surprise, especially in the wake of the Climate Change Committee’s damning report last month, which concluded that continued delays to the revised climate change plan and further slippages in promised climate policies meant Scotland’s 2030 goals were no longer credible.

Even so, the announcement sparked widespread condemnation of Mr Yousaf’s administration which, lest anyone forget, includes two Scottish Greens ministers in its ranks. Friends of the Earth Scotland billed it as “the worst environmental decision in the history of the Scottish Parliament”. Oxfam Scotland described the plans to rewrite the climate rulebook as “an acute global embarrassment” brought about by the Government’s own “dilly dallying” on climate action.

When net zero secretary Mairi McAllan appeared at Holyrood on Thursday to confirm what was already widespread knowledge, there was a further blow, with Alison Johnstone, Holyrood’s presiding officer, reminding her in “the strongest terms possible” that Parliament should be given its proper place and informed of such developments ahead of the media.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That, however, proved to be a side story on a frenetic news day, and one that provided very few positives for the SNP. That morning, the rumbling Cass Review row intensified after it emerged NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Scotland’s biggest health board, had already stopped starting new patients on puberty blocker treatments since mid-March. That decision was criticised by Scottish Trans and other groups, who expressed concern at the impact on young trans people. But so too, it invited renewed condemnation of the Scottish Government’s response to the review – or to be more precise, the lack of it.

Health secretary Neil Gray said it was right for the decision to be made by clinicians rather than politicians, but Meghan Gallacher, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, accused the Government of burying its head in the sand over the issue. “It’s the duty of the health service and politicians to inform the public of a key policy change as quickly as possible, as NHS England did,” she hit out. “This justification smacks of political face-saving.”

On any other day, it would have been a major story. But by the end of Thursday, it was overshadowed by a dramatic development in Police Scotland’s long-running Operation Branchform investigation into the SNP’s finances. At 5pm, it emerged Peter Murrell, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, had been rearrested earlier that morning and taken into custody, where he was being questioned by the force’s detectives.

Shortly after 7.30pm, it was announced Mr Murrell had been charged in connection with the embezzlement of funds from the party where he served as chief executive for 22 years. When he arrived back home in Glasgow from police custody in Falkirk nearly a half hour later, he declined to answer questions from reporters. It was later confirmed he had resigned his membership of the SNP.

On Friday, amid the fallout from the force’s decision to charge Mr Murrell – Mr Yousaf called it a “really serious and concerning matter”, while Ms Sturgeon said it was an “incredibly difficult time” – the week plumbed new depths for the SNP, with news that completion of the long-delayed Glen Sannox ferry had been pushed back once again.

John Petticrew, the interim chief executive of the state-owned Ferguson Marine shipyard, said the delivery date had been set for the end of July. If that is realised, it means it will be exactly six years late. It is now unlikely the new vessel will be carrying passengers until October at the earliest, given the need for sea trials.

Quite how Mr Yousaf bounces back from the week from hell could define his premiership, and the SNP’s prospects at the coming general election. At the start of last week, a Norstat poll showed the First Minister’s popularity amongst the general public had fallen by 15 points since January, with 32 per cent more people of the view that he is doing a bad job, as opposed to a good one.

Even amongst SNP supporters, his stock is falling. More than one in three (36 per cent) people who voted for the party at the last general election think he has been poor in office. The frenetic pace of events since then means that support for Mr Yousaf is likely to have fallen further. Recess must seem like a long time ago.