Internal warfare has erupted within the SNP as a leading MP, facing allegations of bullying, accused others in her party of “lies” and “politically-motivated smears”.
Joanna Cherry, QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, said that allegations she had bullied a staff member were part of a “smear campaign” against her.
Her claims were backed by senior party sources who said the MP was being attacked for speaking out about misogyny on social media as well as her stance on proposed self-identification legislation for transgender people – with one source saying the campaign against her was “like the Crucible”.
Ms Cherry has come under fire from the youth wing of the SNP and from the party’s national women’s and equalities convener, who have said she “misgendered” transwoman Lily Madigan, a Labour Party women’s officer in a Twitter conversation.
She was also criticised for being one of 15 leading SNP politicians who signed a letter asking the Scottish Government not to “rush” into changing the Gender Recognition Act, raising concerns about the potential implications for women of allowing people to self-identify their sex.
And after she raised the issue of women facing violent abuse on Twitter – mostly when raising concerns about transgender legislation – during a House of Commons Human Rights Committee meeting, she had to receive police protection at her Edinburgh constituency office because of death threats.
At the weekend she was accused of bullying, with a former employee, Iona Paton, telling a Sunday newspaper she felt forced to speak out when Ms Cherry spoke of the abuse she’d received.
“I couldn’t stay silent any more when she started saying she was the victim of online bullying when she knew she was dealing with these complaints of bullying against her and [office manager] Fraser Thompson,” said Ms Paton. “It’s hypocritical to say the least.”
Yesterday Ms Cherry said that it “hurt” that the “smear” “may have come from within my own party”. She also took to Twitter to say support she had received from constituents of all political hues “makes a nice contrast with lack of support from SNP hierarchy”.
And she defended herself, saying: “Lies are being told about me in some newspapers today. At present I’m not able to give my side of the story. I hope to be in a position to do so soon. Meantime I’m overwhelmed by the support from constituents, @theSNP members & #Yessers. Thank you.”
One SNP source said Ms Cherry was “absolutely right when she says the smear came from within the party”, and added: “She is seen as a rival to both Nicola and Ian [Blackford] and there is a lobby within the party to discredit her. There are a number of narratives at play. With the GRA debate there’s a nasty lobby involved and this bullying complaint is likely a part of that – after all there is another MP also accused of bullying but in that case there will be an industrial tribunal to find out the truth. In Joanna’s case there’s no substantive case, so it does look like a smear.”
Another party source said: “This is just the latest attempt to undermine Joanna and it says a lot about people in the party who dismiss death threats yet go apoplectic about “misgendering” people.”
And in a reference to Arthur Miller’s famous play about the witch trials of Salem in the 1690s, the source added: “It’s like the Crucible, with children making accusations against good men and women based on superstition and hysteria and these accusations are then validated by adults who are either too weak or stupid to challenge them, or they see it as an opportunity to destroy rivals.”
An SNP spokesperson said the party “takes its welfare responsibilities to all our members – including parliamentarians and staff – extremely seriously. We do not comment on individual employment matters.”
The party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said he would not be reviewing complaints made about Joanna Cherry.
“These are not matters for me as parliamentary leader. These are matters for the parliamentary authorities,” he said. “One of the things I do want to see is if people do bring forward allegations that they are treated with respect and indeed that MPs are treated with respect as well. We have a duty as a party to make sure that we care for all our staff and we care for all our MPs.”
Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, MSP, said: “It’s clear that the SNP is in open warfare. With senior MPs attacking the party hierarchy over its handling of internal matters we see a party now utterly distracted by its own divisions, and failing to focus on the day job. Nicola Sturgeon needs to exercise some of her much diminished authority and fast.”