Analysis: What does Joanna Cherry's sacking mean for the SNP?

Joanna Cherry QC MP has been sacked from her frontbench role in the SNP.Joanna Cherry QC MP has been sacked from her frontbench role in the SNP.
Joanna Cherry QC MP has been sacked from her frontbench role in the SNP.
No matter who you speak to within the SNP, there is a belief that Joanna Cherry’s sacking was inevitable – she was a “thorn in the side” of Nicola Sturgeon and eventually would be removed.

It transpired this would be done without anaesthetic.

Cherry was told in no uncertain terms she had been dumped from her shadow home affairs and justice role. Such was her fall from grace her name did not even merit a mention in the press release about Ian Blackford’s frontbench reshuffle.

So a female QC who not so long ago was being hailed by Remainers as a hero over her successful challenge to the UK Government's prorogation of Parliament is now a non-person in the eyes of the SNP hierarchy.

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However, supporters and detractors alike knew the Edinburgh MP was on thin ice over three key issues at the heart of a civil war raging within the SNP – a plan B for independence, the ongoing Holyrood inquiry into the actions of Alex Salmond, and the row around the clash between women’s rights and transgender rights, which has resulted in the exodus of many SNP members as a result.

On all of these issues Cherry has been on the opposite side of the fence to Nicola Sturgeon.

Plan B

Cherry has long agitated for an answer to the question that has consistently tripped up the SNP since the independence referendum in 2014 – how can another vote be achieved if the UK Government continues to refuse granting a section 30?

Ms Sturgeon has, until very recently, refused to countenance anything other than the same process as took place when she was deputy first minister to Alex Salmond.

She has staunchly repeated her mantra the UK Government cannot ignore the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament and has held the May elections ahead as a referendum on a referendum.

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Joanna Cherry sacked from SNP frontbench

Should the SNP win a majority, or indeed pro-independence parties win a majority, then Boris Johnson has to submit to her demand for a section 30 order to be granted.

Cherry and others have been less than content with such an approach.

She has become something of a figurehead of the growing number of “indy fundies” [fundamentalists] in the party who are keen to find other ways to achieve their political objective.

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Indeed, when two resolutions putting forward alternatives were rejected for debate at the SNP’s annual conference last year, it prompted a backlash, with a majority of advocates in favour of having a plan B elected to the SNP’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee – including Cherry.

Under pressure, this month Sturgeon sanctioned an 11-point plan produced by Mike Russell of a plan B.

Alex Salmond

The SNP has been unable to step out of the shadow of its former leader and former first minister, who is still supported by many party members despite the allegations of sexual harassment that have been made against him. Cherry is one of them, sticking by the man who supported her when she first became an MP.

She is viewed as being privately supportive of him throughout last year’s criminal trial and the ongoing Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the sexual harassment allegations, which has become something of a running sore for Ms Sturgeon.

Cherry also backed Salmond by asking for his role in the party history to be restored to its website after he was cleared of sex charges in a court case last year.

Trans rights

The final wedge issue that appears to have tipped the balance against Cherry is the row engulfing the party over the extension of the rights of transgender people.

A feminist and lesbian, Cherry has argued against the introduction of self-ID or self-declaration for trans people, which would remove the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

She believes such a move would lead to the undermining of women’s sex-based rights, particularly to privacy, dignity and safety if men could “identify into” womanhood.

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This has been hotly contested by many younger and LGBT+ members of the party, who have accused her of transphobia, an allegation she has vigorously denied and at time threatened with legal action.

She has also raised the issue of threats and misogyny made against her on Twitter in the House of Commons.

Last week Sturgeon, who has made many declarations of being a trans-ally, made an appeal to younger and trans SNP members not to leave the party after an exodus was threatened in the wake of an amendment published by justice secretary Humza Yousaf to the Hate Crime Bill.

What is the likely impact for the SNP?

Cherry is undoubtedly one of the best known SNP MPs given her high profile around Brexit and women’s rights. She’s also been a successful constituency MP, raising her share of the vote from 35.6 per cent to 47.6 per cent in the general elections of 2017 and 2019.

As a result, there are many in the party who feel the decision to remove her from the frontbench could well backfire, and indeed could be the catalyst that makes many Scots discover the row around trans rights.

Cherry is known for her brusque manner and ambition, and has made no secret of the fact she’d like the top job if there was ever a vacancy.

Indeed she had hoped to stand for Holyrood this year in the Edinburgh Central seat, which her detractors saw as a step in the direction of the leadership. SNP rules were changed and she was prevented from doing so unless she gave up her Westminster seat first.

But there’s an old adage about keeping your political enemies close.

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With Cherry relegated to the back-benches, it could well give her more freedom to speak her mind and be more critical of the current leadership should she so choose.

She has proved time and again she is not the shy and retiring type.

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