THE SNP’s President has warned the row over the party’s secret membership figures will “aid our enemies”.

Former Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell said he was “disgusted” at the attacks on SNP staff over the issue.

Writing on Twitter this morning, he also defended the SNP’s National Secretary, Lorna Finn, over the handling of the party’s frequently chaotic leadership contest.

He said: “As SNP President I have told the National Secretary I support publishing membership figures. 

“I also have full confidence in her & the external verification & count. I am disgusted by the abuse directed at SNP staff by individuals who damage our cause & aid our enemies.”

The Tories said it was "a telling and depressing insight" into how the SNP viewed those who disagreed with them.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf later distanced himself from the remark, saying the party had opponents, not enemies.

His intervention comes as the party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), prepares to meet online to reverse its previous decision over the membership numbers.

The group originally decided to release the voting figures - from which the party’s overall membership could be calculated - after the two-week ballot closed on March 27.

However after complaints from the candidates about the lack of transparency, the NEC will hold an unscheduled meeting and agree to release the figures today.

THe party’s membership was just over 25,000 when the independence referendum of 2014 was held, then surged after the No vote, peaking at around 125,000 in 2019.

However in recent years it has fallen, with the last published figure 103,884 at the end of December 2021.

Weekend press reports suggest it may have tumbled below 80,000, an embarrassing fall for a party which once projected the membership number on a giant screen at its conferences.

The NEC has previously been forced to reverse its decision  to exclude the media from the party's hustings.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and former minister Ash Regan yesterday released a joint statement voicing their unhappiness at the conduct of the election.

MSP Michelle Thomson, Ms Forbes’s campaign manager, also demanded “a robust third party auditor” to examine the ballot process and vote tally. 

READ MORE: SNP leadership contest in chaos as Forbes question integrity of vote

She said the company running the ballot, Mi-Voice, was not truly independent, but acted on behalf of SNP HQ, which is run by Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, CEO Peter Murrell.

She warned trust was being undermined in SNP HQ.

Ms Sturgeon’s closest political ally, Shona Robison, and her closest special adviser, Liz Lloyd, are both backing health secretary Humza Yousaf to be SNP leader, and there are concerns that SNP HQ cannot therefore be wholly impartial. 

Mr Yousaf tweeted on Thursday: “I have confidence in the process that uses an external third party company, a process we have used for many years.

“I am up for challenge & reform of the party, but let’s not indulge in baseless smears.”

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland this morning, deputy First Minister John Swinney, who is backing Mr Yousaf, said he had 100 per confidence in the election process.

He said: “I don’t understand half of these comments. The process is being conducted by an independent ballot services company, that is an independent organisation. They have got a professional reputation to deliver ballot services effectively and without question.

“My experience, and I have got a lot of experience of elections within the SNP. I have been a candidate in many of them, I ran many of them as the party secretary over many years.

“I have also seen this process we are going through just now operating in the election of previous deputy leaders of the party which we have undertaken in recent years and nobody, nobody, has raised an issue about the authority of those processes.

“They have been completely straightforward, efficient, independently organised processes, and this is exactly the same. So I don’t know what this is all about.”

Asked if he was satisfied the election was being run “entirely properly”, he said: “100%.”

Scottish Conservative chairman Craig Hoy said: “Mike Russell has let the mask slip. This is a telling and depressing insight into how the SNP view those who don’t agree with them.

“This is the legacy of Nicola Sturgeon’s divisive style of politics: an opponent or even a sceptic is branded an 'enemy'.

“The irony is that having pitted Scot against Scot for years – with their independence obsession – now the SNP are bitterly split themselves, and most of the ‘enemies’ are fellow party members in rival camps.”