By sacking Joanna Cherry, Nicola Sturgeon has made her nemesis more dangerous

Far from retreating, Alex Salmond’s key ally is likely to intensify her opposition to Sturgeon. 

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In any other party, Joanna Cherry would probably have lost her position on the SNP's Westminster front bench some time ago. The SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, who was sacked today as home affairs spokesperson, is smart, accomplished and a sharp parliamentarian. But she also makes enemies easily, and her dagger has too often, and for too long, been pointed at her own side.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with or even unusual about that in politics. And Cherry’s position on trans rights, where she has openly challenged the party line, has been one of principle that has won her support from people who might disagree with her on other issues.

But it is traditional to adopt such dissenting stances from the back benches. It is also asking a bit much for Nicola Sturgeon to keep you on the payroll when you are seen as – and even suspected of luxuriating in – leading the internal opposition, supporting efforts by Alex Salmond to force the First Minister from her job, and spearheading a coup to control the party's National Executive. Only the SNP’s long-standing reluctance to fire people, which inevitably stores up trouble in such a tightly knit party, will have stayed Sturgeon’s hand.

Yet the past few months have brought relations between the rival factions to breaking point. The parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of complaints of sexual assault against Salmond has grown ever more dangerous for Sturgeon, due to apparent discrepancies in the evidence given to the committee by her and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell. Salmond is expected to give his own evidence in person and under oath later this month, when it is thought he will accuse Sturgeon of misleading the Scottish Parliament. If the First Minister is found to have broken the ministerial code of conduct she may have to resign. Cherry, as one of Salmond’s staunchest allies, is not looked upon fondly by the current leadership.

[See also: Will Alex Salmond's rage be the downfall of Nicola Sturgeon?]

Cherry has also led an SNP revolt against the way the party has been run by Sturgeon and her small circle of advisers, and against the leadership's position on trans rights. The First Minister is keen to liberalise self-identification laws through a devolved Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and has aligned herself with the trans rights movement, but Cherry, a QC, has repeatedly and publicly raised questions about the potential impact of legislation on women’s rights. The issue splits the SNP, and it is a divide that is growing ever more bitter, to the extent that Sturgeon issued a video at the weekend pleading with trans activists not to leave her party. In terms of pure politics, the First Minister has handled the affair badly. Nevertheless, she is the leader, wields the power, and will have her way.

It is also the case that loyalty is prized more highly in the SNP than in other parties. Its pursuit of independence has long meant disagreements in other policy areas are set aside for the greater good – and this has perhaps been essential in a party that is home to people of wildly differing ideological dispositions, many of them sharing only a belief in independence. Cherry refused to be bound by this rule, and has paid the price.

As one source close to the leadership said of her sacking: “[These are the] consequences for continued gross disloyalty and breaching standing orders. [It] will be spun as a thing about the GRA but there are many others in the party who hold the same views as her who still find themselves in the party or in roles  just not being viciously disloyal. In the Tory party that makes you PM – in the SNP loyalty is our currency.”

 [See also: Nicola Sturgeon: Britain's most powerful woman]

It is not the first time Cherry has been punished by the leadership. When last year she announced her intention to stand for the Edinburgh Central Scottish Parliament seat at Holyrood in this May’s election, the rules were changed so that she would be forced to resign her Westminster seat first. She withdrew and the selection was won by Sturgeon loyalist and former SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson.

Cherry will not go away – it would not be in her nature to give up. She is perhaps even likely to intensify her opposition. Her tweeted response to her sacking was typically robust: “Despite hard work, results & a strong reputation I’ve been sacked today from @theSNP front bench. My constituents & fellow party members who gave me a resounding mandate in recent NEC elections should rest assured that I will continue to work hard for them. Westminster is increasingly irrelevant to Scotland's constitutional future and @theSNP would do well to radically rethink our strategy.”

From the back benches she will have plenty of time and freedom to do just that. Nicola Sturgeon may just have made her nemesis all the more dangerous.

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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