Joanna Cherry is sacked from the SNP front bench

It's a sign of things to come in the increasingly bitter civil war within the SNP.

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There’s a fresh development in the SNP’s ongoing civil war: Joanna Cherry QC, one of the party’s most prominent MPs, has been sacked from her role on the SNP’s front bench team in Westminster.

Ian Blackford, the party’s leader in Westminster, quietly announced a reshuffle of the party’s London team in a statement this morning, omitting to mention the most notable removal of Cherry from her role as justice and home affairs spokesperson. Instead, Cherry broke the news herself:

Why was she sacked? No official statement has been given by the SNP, but the factors affecting the move are plain to see.

The first, simple, reason is that the Edinburgh South West MP is vocally at odds with her party’s policy on trans rights. She is a longstanding opponent of the Scottish government’s plans for Gender Recognition Act reform, and a vocal defender of “gender critical” views on social media, increasingly culminating in bitter Twitter clashes between Cherry and other SNP colleagues and activists. Last week the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, released an unexpected video on social media emphasising that transphobia was “unacceptable” within the SNP, in what was widely interpreted a criticism of Cherry in particular. 

But it runs deeper than this single issue. The fierce debate over trans rights within the SNP – which extends well beyond Cherry herself – is often spoken of a “proxy war” for the deeper divisions between Sturgeon’s supporters and those of the former first minister Alex Salmond. Plenty of politicians and activists on either side resent the suggestion that their views on trans rights are not deeply and sincerely held, but it is true that this issue maps neatly on to the Salmondite/Sturgeonite camps, and the more substantial power struggle between the two camps. 

Cherry, a key Salmond ally, is viewed as an effective politician and a potential rival to the First Minister, and has differed with the leadership not only on trans rights but on its strategy towards independence. Last July, a rule change by the SNP’s governing body meant that Cherry could not stand for election to the Scottish parliament this year without first resigning her Westminster seat, prompting her to bow out of consideration for a Holyrood seat, where she would have been a direct rival of Sturgeon’s. It comes against the wider backdrop of an ongoing inquiry into Sturgeon’s handling of allegations against Salmond, once her close mentor. 

After a week in which SNP tensions on social media reached boiling point, and at the beginning of LGBTQ+ history month, many in the SNP see this as the logical conclusion of Cherry’s longstanding difference with the party line on trans rights. But it hasn’t made the problem that Cherry poses go away. Nor does it resolve any of the deeper divisions between the Sturgeon and Salmond camps. If anything, it is a small sign of what’s to come.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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