FORMER Scottish Government minister Alex Neil said it was “hard to believe” that Peter Murrell’s arrest was not a factor in Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as first minister.

He also claimed that had the arrest of the party's chief executive happened during the SNP leadership contest, then Humza Yousaf would likely not have won. 

Yesterday, Mr Yousaf rejected claims that Ms Sturgeon's sudden and unexpected departure was because of the police probe. 

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf insists SNP will cooperate fully with police

Speaking to the BBC's Today programme, Mr Neil said: “Well, Nicola did resign very suddenly. Everybody and their granny knew about this investigation.

“There were very strong rumours for the last couple of months that some kind of arrest was possibly imminent, so it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t a factor in Nicola’s consideration.

“Given that a large number of people had been interviewed, including staff at SNP headquarters, it’s hard to believe Nicola wasn’t aware.”

Asked about Humza Yousaf’s election as First Minister, Mr Neil said: “Humza stood as the continuity candidate. Had this all happened … prior to the ballot opening, I’m absolutely sure that the continuity candidate would have found it much more difficult to win.”

That point was echoed by SNP MP Angus MacNeil. He told The National there were questions for Police Scotland to answer.

“In an ever-changing situation we have to know: did the leadership contest influence the police’s timing? I think that’s a question for Police Scotland and I think for democracy it’s very important that the police answer that question.

“Did a political process affect the timing of the police investigation? If it did, then it’s got implications for democracy, because the members may or may not have selected the same candidate, but we don’t know.”

Mr MacNeil went on: “If a lot of people are asking the question ‘did they delay the investigation’ then Police Scotland have to clear that up.

“The problem we have, and the problem that we’ve had for a while, is people making decisions without information. People voting before they knew [about the membership numbers controversy], HQ then telling Mi-Voice that under no circumstances are people allowed to change their votes given the new information.

“We had a process, a voting period, where information changed but people weren’t allowed to change their votes if they wanted to.

“Everything’s changing but the vote can’t change, and if the police have held back the investigation then that means information was withheld from those who voted. Did they delay it and if so why did they delay it?”

Mr Murrell's role came under much scrutiny during the contest. 

He was ultimately forced to resign as the SNP’s chief executive last month following a row over misleading information being given to journalists about the size of the party’s membership.

Mr Yousaf repeatedly praised the outgoing party boss, telling The Herald at one campaign stop that Mr Murrell was a "good person" and an exceptional servant of the SNP.

On February 12 of this year, the Herald on Sunday reported that senior SNP figures had been contacted by the police as part of Operation Branchform, the long-running investigation into the party's finances.

Three days later, Ms Sturgeon announced she was quitting as SNP leader and first minister.

Asked yesterday, if the investigation was the real reason Ms Sturgeon had resigned, Mr Yousaf said: “Nicola’s legacy stands on its own.

“Nicola’s legacy, whether it’s in relation to care-experienced young people and keeping The Promise, whether it’s on tackling child poverty, there are many legacies she can stand on, and I think that’s what she’ll be judged on.”

He continued: “I believe her very much when she says how exhausted she was.

“I think anybody who watched her over the course of the pandemic during those daily briefings, day after day, I think anybody could understand how exhausting that is.

“So, no, I don’t think this is the reason why Nicola Sturgeon stood down."

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon cancels Edinburgh science festival appearance

There is still a heavy police presence outside the Glasgow home of Mr Murrell and Ms Sturgeon.

Plain-clothes officers could be seen entering and leaving the property, one carrying two large rolls of bubble wrap.

One of the uniformed officers was wearing white protective foot coverings while other officers could be seen carrying them after leaving the house.

Health Secretary Michael Matheson has said the Government would not provide a “running commentary” of the investigation into the SNP’s finances, but conceded it was a “difficult time” for the party.

Speaking during a visit to an NHS 24 call centre in Glasgow, Mr Matheson told the PA news agency: “There’s a live police investigation here and I think the important thing is that we give the police the space that they need – without a running commentary – as part of their investigation.

“I don’t intend to be providing a running commentary around that.

“What I’ve been very clear about – and what the party has been very clear about – is that the party will comply with any requests made by the police for information.”

He added: “I think it’s important that I acknowledge – and the First Minister acknowledged this yesterday – it’s a difficult time for the party at the present moment, given this investigation, but it’s important we allow the police to get on with their job and to carry out a very thorough and detailed investigation, and see what the outcome of that is.”

READ MORE: Peter Murrell released without charge in SNP finance probe

Speaking to The Herald while campaigning in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Labour leader Anas Sarwar said there were questions for Mr Yousaf to answer.

"I don't want to prejudice any kind of police investigation, but I do think that there are big questions around what he knew and when," he said. "And in the fullness of time, I hope we can get the opportunity to ask those questions and we can get the appropriate answers."