SNP chief executive Peter Murrell yesterday resigned from his role in the face of mounting pressure within the party to step down following a row over membership numbers.

The husband of Nicola ­Sturgeon announced he was leaving with ­immediate effect following ­suggestions the party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), was considering a vote of no confidence in him.

SNP president Michael Russell will now oversee the operation of the ­party’s headquarters on an interim basis until a new leader is in place and a new permanent chief executive is appointed, it has been announced.

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Sturgeon said her husband was “right” to announce his departure and that he had intended to step down when there was a new leader.

His resignation came after a ­turbulent few days for the party which saw a row explode over the ­publication of membership figures during the leadership contest.

After mounting pressure for SNP HQ to release the latest numbers, it emerged that the party had lost 30,000 members in just over a year to 72,000.

This prompted the resignation of SNP media chief Murray Foote (below) on ­Friday, who had strongly denied ­media reports in February that ­membership had fallen by this amount.

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He said after speaking to the party’s HQ, he had issued responses to the media which had “serious issues” and he later decided there was a “serious impediment” to his role.

The crisis prompted anger among members of the SNP NEC and ­discussions about a motion of no ­confidence in Murrell, heaping ­pressure on him to step down.

In a statement, Murrell, who has been the party’s chief ­executive for more than 20 years, said: ­“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. I have therefore decided to confirm my intention to step down as chief executive with ­immediate effect. I had not planned to confirm this decision until after the leadership election.

“However, as my future has become a distraction from the campaign, I have concluded that I should stand down now, so the party can focus ­fully on issues about Scotland’s future.

“The election contest is being run by the national secretary and I have had no role in it at any point.

“I am very proud of what has been achieved in my time as chief executive and of the part I have played in securing the electoral success the party has enjoyed over almost two decades.”

Sturgeon was attending an SNP women’s event in Edinburgh when his resignation was announced, but attendees said the issue was not raised at the gathering.

Later she told Sky News that Murrell had “obviously taken ­responsibility for the recent issue with membership”.

She added: “He had intended to step down when there was a new ­leader but I think he was right to make that announcement today.”

She continued: “Peter has been a key part of the electoral success we have achieved in recent years and I know there will be a recognition of that across the party.”

SNP leadership candidate Ash Regan said: “Eight years ago was the point where it was unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as the CEO.

“I am encouraged to see the democratic foundations of the party now asserting their rightful function.

“The SNP is more than capable of surviving this, as long as we stick true to our roots, and we uphold the ­values of our members.”

Kate Forbes (below), who is also running for leader, told BBC Radio 4 the party owed a “debt of gratitude” to Murrell following news of his resignation.

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But she said: “From the very beginning, I have said that there’s an appetite for the party to be refreshed.”

She added: “All of us in the SNP are proud of the SNP’s track record. Who wouldn’t be proud, for example, of multiple election victories?

“But right now we need to stop, ­reset and listen to what people are saying to us.”

SNP leadership candidate Humza Yousaf praised the outgoing chief ­executive as “an outstanding servant of the independence movement”.

He said: “I agree with Peter that it is time for him to move on and make way for a new leader to appoint a new chief executive as ­passionate about the SNP and the cause of ­independence as he has been.”

Critics of the SNP under ­Sturgeon’s leadership, both inside and outside the party, have long questioned whether it is appropriate to have the same household ­holding both the roles of chief executive and leader.

Murrell has also faced questions over the party’s finances including the fate of £600,000 that was raised from supporters for a future referendum campaign and it was confirmed last year he had given a loan of £107,620 to the SNP to help it out with a “cash flow” issues.

The SNP leadership is now ­entering its final week after some turbulent days which also saw Forbes and Regan raise concerns about the ­integrity of the election.

However, Yousaf, who is widely viewed as the favourite for the top job among the party hierarchy, dismissed these as “baseless smears”.

The SNP’s NEC agreed to a motion yesterday which said that it “authorises the party president to take responsibility in a voluntary capacity for the operation of HQ and the work of HQ staff pro tem, pending the election of a new party leader, expresses its confidence in the national secretary and her supervision of that election, the arrangements for which are robust and independent and calls on the candidates, their teams and all party members to complete the process in a positive and forward-looking spirit.”

In a statement, the SNP’s business convener Kirsten Oswald MP said Murrell had been a “key part of the team that has led the SNP to election win after election win and changed the face of Scottish politics”.

She added: “The leadership ­election has been overseen entirely by the National Secretary Lorna Finn who is responsible for all party elections, not the chief executive, and as a result, these changes have no impact on the operation of the leadership contest.

“The ballots are issued and ­counted by Mi-Voice, a respected ­independent company and voting concludes next Monday.”