THE SNP ended last year with a £320,000 deficit after making a £66,000 loss on its annual conference and spending £156,000 on unidentified “legal fees”.

The £319,161 loss for 2019, which was in spite of a one-off levy on party branches raising £174,227, compared to a £1,119,353 surplus in 2018.

The main reason was the party fighting two elections - the European in May and the General in December - in which it won three MEPs and 47 MPs respectively. 

It also spent almost £100,000 on a failed attempt to win a Holyrood byelection in Shetland.

The last time the SNP recorded a deficit was in the Holyrood election year of 2016.

However the party’s annual accounts, which were published via the Electoral Commission, also showed some unusual items.

The party’s showpiece conference in Aberdeen in October 2019 lost money, costing £66,054 more to put on than was recouped from attendees and sponsorship.

The event was run by Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

There was also an unusually high bill for “legal fees”, which at £156,483 was more than the legal bill for the preceding six years combined.

The highest legal bill in the previous decade was £61,105 in 2010, when the SNP mounted, then dropped, a court challenge to be part of a BBC leaders’ election debate.

The SNP accounts say party membership at 31 December 2019 was 125,691, or 3.2 per cent of the Scottish electorate, and 157 more than at 31 December 2018.

Total income in 2019 was £5,290,815 while total expenditure was £5,609,024.

In 2018, total income was £4,748,450 while total expenditure was £3,627,171.

Donations in 2019 were £904,695, compared to £323,936 in 2018.

At the end of 2018, the SNP has accumulated funds of £591,77 including £411,042 “cash in hand and at bank”.

At the end of 2019, the fund was down to £271,916, with £96,854 in cash and at the bank.

This is markedly less than the £482,000 the party claimed had been ring-fenced in 2017 after a fundraising campaign to finance a second independence referendum.

Mr Murrell launched the ref.scot fundraising website when Ms Sturgeon announced in March that year that she wanted to hold Indyref2 in response to Brexit.

The SNP told the Herald at the time: “The funding that was raised during the period of the ref.scot crowdfunder will only be used for the specific purpose of a referendum campaign. 

“In that regard, the money is earmarked.”

However the party’s accounts contain no reference to a restricted referendum fund, suggesting the money has been absorbed into general spending.

In evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into his doomed legal battle with the Scottish Government, Alex Salmond said this week suggested the SNP was paying for legal representation for some of the witnesses.

He said: “Vast sums of public funds have already been expended by Scottish Government officials in legal representation in this process. I am also informed that other witnesses are relying on their political party to finance their legal representation.”

An SNP spokesperson said: “The SNP rely on the commitment and generosity of our supporters to keep us campaigning.

“We have huge underlying financial strength, thanks to our mass membership. Last year we were able to allocate £1.4 million at short notice to contest unplanned elections.

“This included a General Election where the SNP won a landslide in Scotland, our best European election result ever, plus the parliamentary by-election in Shetland.

“We are immensely grateful to all our members and supporters who made those achievements possible in 2019.”