Euan McColm: Ideological battle lines drawn in Cherry v Robertson contest over SNP’s future

The stakes couldn’t be higher when the party’s two big hitters vie for one Holyrood seat, writes Euan McColm.

Joanna Cherry outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh seeking an interim interdict to prevent the UK parliament being suspended. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Joanna Cherry outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh seeking an interim interdict to prevent the UK parliament being suspended. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

There’s no question that Alex Salmond’s defeat at the hands of the Tories was the big shock of the 2017 general election. The man who made the SNP the dominant force in Scottish politics had seemed untouchable and now his political career was over. Just like that.

But though the scalping of Salmond was a huge deal, not much less significant was the defeat of MP Angus Robertson.

Robertson had impressed as the SNP’s Westminster leader, delivering performances during Prime Minister’s Questions that far outshone the contributions of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. Robertson, said some pundits, was the real leader of the opposition.

There was speculation that Robertson might, one day, lead the party and, even if this was a fairly optimistic view, it was certainly true that he was one of very few premier league politicians in the SNP’s ranks.

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And so it was hardly surprising that Robertson’s recent announcement that he plans to seek the nomination to become the candidate in Edinburgh Central at next year’s Holyrood election was greeted with considerable approval by the SNP rank and file. It was important that the party’s most talented politicians were on the frontline and Robertson’s presence at Holyrood would be great news for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, deputy FM John Swinney aside, is hardly surrounded by glittering talent.

Edinburgh Central – currently held by former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who intends to stand down next year – is a prime SNP target. Robertson – a politician of the centre ground – is, I think, quite right to fancy his chances of taking the seat, where the Tory majority is a measly 610.

But the story of Robertson gliding into the candidacy and then on to Holyrood has been derailed. Just as it looked like Robertson was going to have a clear run at the nomination for Edinburgh Central, MP Joanna Cherry announced that she planned to go for it too.

Cherry – currently the member for Edinburgh South West – said she had been urged by party members to do so. Suddenly, things became a great deal more interesting.

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Both Robertson and Cherry are talented politicians. In the years before the 2014 independence referendum, Robertson was a crucial part of the SNP’s strategic team. He successfully fought for the party to abolish its opposition to Nato, a move which saw the party move further into the political mainstream, and he played a leading role in softening (and thus improving) the SNP’s campaigning language.

Cherry’s political CV is also impressive. She played a leading role in the successful attempt to have Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament last autumn declared illegal. That campaign saw Cherry’s profile rise way beyond most of her colleagues’.

And so now the SNP members of Edinburgh Central have a dilemma. The decision they make will have massive implications for the future direction of the SNP.

After Cherry entered this race, Robertson let it be known that, as MSP for Edinburgh Central, he would be a team player. His loyalty to Sturgeon was beyond question. He would help and support her.

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This statement of support for the First Minister dripped with the implication that Cherry could not be depended upon to remain loyal.

In an equally passive-aggressive pitch to members, Cherry made the point that she had retained her seat during the Tory resurgence of 2017. Not like that loser, Roberston.

If Robertson wins the nomination – and I think he may be considered the front-runner at this stage – then I have no doubt that he will live up to his pledge of loyalty to Sturgeon. He was a key member of the team, under Alex Salmond and including Sturgeon and Swinney, that helped transform the SNP from a party of perpetual opposition to a party of government. There is no major issue on which he and the First Minister disagree to any significant degree and he absolutely supports her approach to winning independence.

It’s not at all clear that Sturgeon could expect the same degree of loyalty from Cherry.

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The First Minister’s current position is that independence will only be achieved if the Yes campaign wins a referendum that’s legally unimpeachable. And since the power to permit a referendum lies with Westminster and Johnson has declared “not on your Nelly” to a request for that power to be transferred to Holyrood, she is unable to give members the second referendum they desire.

Cherry has proposed that Holyrood should legislate for a consultative referendum without the consent of Westminster. This would, of course, compel the UK government to take to the courts. But, then, as a QC, there are few places in which Cherry is more comfortable.

Critics of Cherry frequently deride her for her ambition, sniping that her focus is on becoming the next leader of the SNP. I wonder whether she’d be the victim of this particular line of attack if she wasn’t a woman. I doubt it.

Robertson and Cherry embody two competing strands in the SNP. He is a standard bearer for the cautious, step-by-step approach that has made the SNP the dominant force in Scottish politics. She represents a faction that thinks Sturgeon has been weak on the constitutional question and that would like to see the adoption of a more proactive approach to securing a second referendum.

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Of course, even if Cherry wins, Sturgeon will still – unforeseen circumstances notwithstanding – be First Minister. She’ll still call the shots. But she’d be sharing a parliament with an accomplished, high-profile politician who has already made clear she’s happy to undermine her.

Friends of the First Minister argue that talk of ideological splits in the party is overcooked, that Cherry represents a tiny faction in the SNP.

This may be so, but election to Holyrood might assist Cherry in building support for a more radical approach to the constitutional question.

The battle for the Edinburgh Central nomination is also a battle over the future direction of the SNP.

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