SNP MP Joanna Cherry seems to be ‘fighting everyone’ and the more unhappy she is, the greater the risk to Nicola Sturgeon, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Why do SNP MPs at Westminster look so unhappy?
The party is riding high in the polls, whether that’s at Holyrood or Westminster. Despite the uncertainty over a second referendum, support for independence remains near historic highs. Labour is divided, the Tories are demoralised, and both are in disarray over Brexit. So certain is the SNP’s victory in next week’s European elections, it’s barely being remarked on because the fight between the other parties for the scraps is so much more interesting.
But the atmosphere within the SNP group at Westminster, insiders say, is “total sh*t”. To have a sitting SNP MP tweet about “backstabbing”, in an obvious reference to party colleagues, is unprecedented – not because the Nationalists don’t do rows, but because we haven’t seen them spill out into the public like this since the advent of social media. Colleagues are astonished the tweet was sent during PMQs from the bench behind Ian Blackford, shortly after he had taken on the Prime Minister, and in the last week of an election campaign.
The immediate cause are the claims of bullying levelled at Joanna Cherry by four former members of her office staff, now being examined by House of Commons officials, which she strongly denies. Sitting behind that, however, are far more fundamental questions.
The SNP hasn’t had a meaningful leadership contest since 2004, when the Scottish Parliament was new, Scotland was painted deep Labour red and the nationalists remained a somewhat awkward, fringe concern. For 15 years, there’s hardly been so much as a question about the party leadership. Salmond, then Sturgeon – the mantra went unchallenged. Until it started being challenged by Salmond himself.
Even before the former First Minister took his own government to court over its investigation into allegations of misconduct, Salmond was pulling in a different direction from Sturgeon: on independence, on his relationship with Kremlin-backed broadcaster Russia Today – and behind the scenes, in the personal intrigues that are the stuff of party politics. In her extraordinary interview at the weekend, in which she blew up the row with claims of a smear campaign against her, Cherry talked about SNP parliamentarians being “hung out to dry” by their party.
That could only have been a reference to Michelle Thomson, once the MP for Cherry’s neighbouring constituency. Thomson had to resign the SNP whip during a police investigation into her property portfolio, and was eventually denied the right to contest her seat again. Her treatment was the subject of the first rift between the enlarged nationalist group at Westminster and the SNP hierarchy. The protest by SNP MPs had Salmond’s support.
Sturgeon has found herself destabilised by the challenge of maintaining an independence strategy amid the storm of Brexit, and by her predecessor. It means for the first time in a generation, the SNP is thinking about what – and who – comes next. It’s a natural question for any other political party. For the SNP, it inspires an anxiety crisis.
In one sense, the SNP is a victim of its own success. The size of Labour’s majority in 1997 fuelled the Blair-Brown saga: there were more bodies to divide into factions.
Other than at the formation of the Scottish Parliament, the only SNP MP to voluntarily make the switch from Westminster to Holyrood has been one Alex Salmond. Now there are half a dozen SNP MPs or more – not to mention an MEP – weighing up whether to try for a Holyrood seat and climb the ministerial ladder, or even vault straight to the top.
Which brings us back to Joanna Cherry. In an attempt to smooth things over, Sturgeon used her first public comments on the row to hail the Edinburgh South West MP as “hugely talented” and a “massive asset” to the party.
Those weren’t empty words. Her critics claim Cherry is difficult, brittle and lacks friends among her Westminster colleagues – but she was only narrowly defeated in the ballot of MPs for group leader by Ian Blackford. “She is the best example of someone who’s intelligent but not clever,” one SNP insider says.
Cherry has managed to keep a foot in two SNP camps: those who want Sturgeon’s government to move faster towards a second independence referendum, and the party’s staunch pro-EU supporters – some of whom are new converts to the SNP and potentially to independence, and therefore particularly valuable to the Nationalists.
The QC raised her profile on Brexit by putting herself at the forefront of the legal case at the European Court of Justice that demonstrated the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50.
And Cherry represents a key battleground for the SNP: a Tory-facing constituency in a wedge of relatively wealthy, pro-EU and pro-Union Edinburgh. Edinburgh South West is the kind of place where the SNP firewall against the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour must hold if it wants to renew its mandate at Holyrood. She did well to defend the seat in 2017 from a strong Tory candidate.
Which is a long way of saying this: the more unhappy Cherry is, the greater the risk to Sturgeon. “I can’t work out her strategy,” one Westminster SNP source says of Cherry. “She’s fighting everyone.” Another suggests the Edinburgh MP is stoking the row precisely because it keeps the ground shifting beneath Sturgeon’s feet.
Whatever the plan is – if there is one – SNP insiders know that the distraction, division and damage caused by this row are just a preamble to the moment later this year when Salmond appears at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.
No wonder they look so unhappy.