The campaign to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party – and as Scotland’s First Minister – has been engulfed in chaos which has seen two senior SNP figures resign in just 24 hours.

On Saturday SNP’s powerful executive director Peter Murrell resigned after it became clear that he had provided false membership numbers to the party’s media director in response to a journalist’s inquiry, although in a statement he claimed that “there was no intention to mislead”.

Murrell, who has been in charge of the party’s backroom operations for more than 20 years, is also married to the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the way the party’s leaders have run the ongoing leadership contest has been criticized in recent weeks. There have also been some allegations of bias against one of the candidates in particular – reportedly Sturgeon’s preferred successor.

In addition, there is an active police investigation into allegations that £600,000 (€680,000) of party money was misused on Murrell’s watch.

On Friday, the SNP’s media manager did Murray Footewho was previously a newspaper editor, also resigned after passing on the fake membership numbers he had received to the journalist who asked about them.

So why are membership numbers important?

When voting opened earlier this week in the race to replace Sturgeon, the SNP executive said it would not reveal how many party members were eligible to vote. All three contenders on the ballot — Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf — complained about this and said it was normal and reasonable to be told in advance how many eligible voters there might be.

Back in February, a journalist in the Sunday Mail had claimed that 30,000 party members had recently quit, largely in protest against Scotland’s gender recognition billwhich was passed with overwhelming cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament at the end of 2022, but is still considered controversial by some members of the public.

At that time Murray had Foote written on Twitter that the journalist’s reporting was “plain wrong”, “drivel” and “tartan bollocks”; while an SNP spokesman was quoted as saying another newspaper and said the Sunday Mail’s story was “damaging and completely wrong.”

Now, with the SNP forced by pressure from challengers in its own leadership race to reveal the true membership figures, the Sunday Mail’s story proved correct: causing both media boss Foote and Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell to fall on their swords.

Foote said he had “acted in good faith” in issuing “agreed party responses” to media inquiries about the SNP’s membership numbers, but there were “serious problems” with what he told the journalist.

What has been the reaction?

Scotland’s opposition parties are predictably having a field day with the turmoil in the ruling party, particularly during a leadership campaign that has shone a spotlight on political divisions within the SNP, and as challengers have traded sharp barbs during televised debates.

The leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwarreleased a statement on Saturday saying “while the SNP is in turmoil, we are relentlessly focused on delivering the change Scotland needs.”

“The SNP are in chaos and distracted by their own priorities. Frankly, Scotland deserves better than this,” wrote Sarwar, who is an MSP from Glasgow.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Rosssaid Murrell’s resignation “is just the latest development in this SNP civil war.”

“But while the nationalists tear themselves apart, Scotland’s real priorities continue to be forgotten,” the Highland MP said.

Meanwhile, the candidates to become Scotland’s next leader have had their say. Kate Forbes tweeted that only she can restore confidence in party governance; Ash Regan said that “eight years ago the point at which it was unacceptable to have the party leader’s husband as CEO”; and while Humza Yousaf had yet to respond to Murrell’s resignation, on Friday night wrote “the reform of our HQ operations has been a key part of my campaign.”