Ex-SNP media chief attacks 'grotesque' police probe

time:2023-06-02 12:34:27 source:CNN (Cable News Network)

The SNP's former spin doctor has said he is willing to bet that the police investigation into the party's finances will not result in any charges.

Murray Foote, who quit in March amid a row over membership figures, speculated the probe could be "wild goose chase" and branded it a "grotesque spectacle".

The SNP's former chief executive, Peter Murrell, and ex-treasurer Colin Beattie were arrested as part of the inquiry.

Both were released without charge pending further investigation.

Officers also spent two days searching the Glasgow home of Mr Murrell and his wife - former first minister Nicola Sturgeon - and the party's headquarters in Edinburgh.

A forensic tent was erected outside the house and several boxes of items were removed from both properties in the high-profile operation last month.

A luxury motorhome was also seized from outside the Dunfermline home of Mr Murrell's mother.

Mr Foote stood down as head of communications for the SNP after the party provided inaccurate membership figures to the media during its leadership election, saying he had passed them on in "good faith".

He had ridiculed newspaper reports, which later turned out to be true, that the party had lost 30,000 members.

The former Daily Record editor wrote in the newspaper on Thursday that he was prepared to bet £5 on there being no charges after the ongoing Police Scotland investigation into the SNP's finances is concluded.

The probe, known as Operation Branchform, was launched in July 2021 following complaints about how more than £600,000 of donations for a future independence referendum were used.

Mr Foote described the sight of forensic tents outside of the home of the former first minister as "extraordinary" and a "grotesque circus".

He added: "Given the grim spectacle at the house Peter Murrell shares with Nicola Sturgeon and at the party HQ, it's inconceivable the authorities would be so cavalier without slam dunk evidence, right?"

But he went on to compare the situation to the Rangers case, where more than £50m in compensation has been paid out after several people involved in the administration and acquisition of the football club were wrongly prosecuted.

Mr Foote said: "The authorities have previous for high-profile inquiries collapsing in scandal. If they have spectacularly misjudged this one too, then the reputational cost will be far more substantial than the cash spent on manpower".

He added: "I'm not saying Branchform is a wild goose chase - but what if it is? Surely it's worth considering.

"Actually, if we cherish the presumption of innocence, then a no charges outcome must be at least considered. And the fallout would have serious consequences for the investigating authorities."

While Mr Foote said police had a duty to investigate complaints, he said you would "struggle to meet two less likely master criminals" than Mr Beattie and Mr Murrell.

He wrote: "Firstly, Peter's loyalty to his wife is unquestionable. First minister Sturgeon and her husband lived under crushingly intense scrutiny.

"It is inconceivable to me that Peter would so much as consider doing something dodgy lest it rebound and put his wife in jeopardy."

The police investigation of the SNP's finances is, as you might expect, the subject of intense discussion in political circles.

You can't walk through Holyrood's garden lobby without bumping into someone who wants to gossip, speculate or stroke their chin about it.

But when speaking out in public, most are pretty careful. That is sensible, given it's an active police case, subject to Contempt of Court rules.

Those rules mean you shouldn't publish anything which could endanger any future court case. But they do not mean you are sworn to total silence.

It has become an easy get-out for politicians of all stripes to insist that they can't say a single word about anything the police might be looking in to.

As a former newspaper editor, Murray Foote knows his way around the difficulties and risks in this area better than most.

He obviously has a certain perspective, having recently worked as a SNP spin doctor - but perhaps his willingness to put his money where his mouth is will encourage more in the political sphere to start speaking their minds.

Mr Foote forecast a potential surge in SNP membership if the party is cleared of wrongdoing.

He also attacked the Scottish Conservatives, branding them the "real party of corruption" and accusing them of exploiting the situation.

Tory MSP Annie Wells said the "highly speculative" Daily Record article showed Mr Foote was still happy to spin for the SNP.

She said his faith in Mr Murrell's character will "raise a few eyebrows" given the former chief executive took responsibility for misleading the public over membership figures before resigning.

Mr Foote resigned from his role as the SNP's media chief after describing press reports that the party's membership had dropped by 30,000 as "inaccurate" and "drivel".

The SNP subsequently confirmed that membership had fallen to from 104,000 to 72,186 since 2021.

Mr Foote said he issued agreed party responses to the media which "created a serious impediment" to his role.

The SNP raised £666,953 through referendum-related appeals between 2017 and 2020 with a pledge to spend these funds on the independence campaign.

Questions were raised after its accounts showed it had just under £97,000 in the bank at the end of 2019, and total net assets of about £272,000.

First Minister Humza Yousaf has rejected calls for Mr Murrell and Ms Sturgeon to be suspended from the party.

He said Mr Beattie's arrest was "clearly a very serious matter indeed" but he had not been suspended from the party as "people are innocent until proven guilty".

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