LONDON — She was the legal mastermind who became one of the Scottish National Party’s most high-profile figures with her fight against Brexit, but the summary dismissal of Joanna Cherry this week laid bare her bitter internal divisions.
Cherry was dropped as justice spokesman for the party’s Westminster frontbench team on Monday, amid fierce battles over former leader Alex Salmond, transgender rights and the roadmap for Scottish independence.
Critics say Cherry’s combative approach cut too many ties with her colleagues. But his supporters say it reveals a dangerous centralization of power around the leader of the SNP, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It’s a style seen as particularly risky because an imminent investigation into Sturgeon’s handling of complaints against his predecessor Salmond could pose a serious threat to his leadership – and deal a blow to the separatist cause.
Cherry was closely allied with Salmond and against Sturgeon’s leadership on key policies. But personalities matter as much as substance in politics, and separating the two in the bitter SNP row is difficult.
The SNP approaches politics with a “one-leadership central world view” and prefers “not to tow discussion at all”, said a Cherry ally. “That’s why some of these things broke in public.”
Cherry’s supporters say his talent and ideas have been ignored, as Sturgeon seeks to keep an iron grip on the party. His dismissal, in their view, was aimed at crushing dissent. The Ally described it as a case of “big poppy syndrome”, with executives hoping to kill off critics before a rollercoaster of a few weeks, which could be game-breaking for Sturgeon. Others in the pro-Sturgeon camp argue that Cherry was too disloyal to be kept on the sidelines.
MPs POLITICO spoke to across political divides praised Cherry’s sharp legal mind and political acumen. She was instrumental in two high-profile court cases against the Westminster government over Brexit: one which required ministers to ask Parliament before triggering the Brexit countdown; and another who headed the Conservative administration had acted illegally by suspending Parliament.
“My experience working with her was that she was completely professional, cooperated with other political parties to resist no deal [on Brexit] and was always interesting to listen to on a personal basis,” said former Tory cabinet minister Dominic Grieve, who teamed up with Cherry during the Brexit battles of the previous parliament. “She’s a strong personality, but she listens to others.”
While the SNP is a centre-left party, Cherry has won the respect of others on the Tory benches for her approach to Commons theatre. “One of his specialties is harassing Tory MPs,” said a senior Tory official.
A legal colleague who has known her for decades said: ‘If you found out she was your opponent, you knew she wouldn’t do any harm, but she would also be perfectly reasonable, and you would normally be in able to find some kind of agreement that was satisfactory to all parties.
“She’s a very assertive woman who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak her mind,” an SNP official added.
But her enemies within the party are less forgiving: describing her as insufferable to work with and ready to sabotage the Scottish independence plan if it means winning internal battles and promoting herself. An SNP official said she was demanding of her colleagues and always wanted to do what she wanted. In 2019 she was erased of a harassment complaint lodged by staff with a parliamentary watchdog.
Some political opponents are scathing. “He’s probably the nastiest person in parliament or any party to me,” said an opposition Labor MP. Her friends insist she is not narcissistic and keeps the ultimate price of Scottish independence in mind in all her dealings.
Yet even his supporters admit that the South West MP for Edinburgh can be difficult to deal with. “She can be prickly at times, but there’s no one without personal flaws,” an ally said. When asked if they were at the end of those quills, the person replied, “Certainly. Everyone did,” but insisted that Cherry’s heart was in the right place.
Cherry declined to answer questions for this article.
This week’s drama comes as Sturgeon is on the ropes for his handling of sexual abuse allegations against his predecessor and former mentor, Salmond. It was erased appeared in court last year on multiple assault charges, but the fallout has sparked widespread bickering between the parties.
The First Minister has been questioned about when she learned of the allegations, as well as claims that she misled the Scottish Parliament in the written evidence she provided, which would amount to a breach of the code Scottish ministerial – and could be grounds for resignation.
Salmond is appearing before a Holyrood inquiry into the matter next week and has promised to present damning new evidence against the prime minister. The sturgeon will appear the following week.
Cherry is a friend of Salmond – though her allies insist she doesn’t like being portrayed as a Salmondite or a Sturgeonite and is primarily a member of the SNP. SNP officials accuse him of making life difficult for the leadership by campaigning for the former leader.
The Labor leader quoted above said: ‘There has been an almighty battle raging for several years over whether you support Salmond or Sturgeon. This comes to a head with the claims and counterclaims arising from the Scottish Parliamentary Inquiry.
Then there is the issue of trans rights. Cherry has spoken out against Scottish government plans to strengthen rights and protections for trans people, arguing they erode women’s rights.
Last month she clashed Twitter with former SNP Westminster deputy leader Kirsty Blackman calling her a “privileged straight young woman” (Cherry describes herself as a “lesbian feminist”) and accusing Blackman of breaching the party’s code of conduct in her own comments attacking Cherry.
Blackman told POLITICO, “The party is committed to recognizing a definition of transphobia and I think transphobic people should be kicked out of the party,” although she declined to be drawn directly to Cherry.
“Parties need to have discipline,” said another SNP MP who thinks Cherry is on the wrong side of the trans debate. “The SNP leaves a lot of room for maneuver to elected officials. But there have to be limits. Cherry has drawn abuse online for her stance on trans rights and would feel abandoned by Sturgeon, who her allies say never came to her defense.
Road to a new nation
Another big fight – and one that is at the heart of the party – is on the way to winning Scottish independence. Cherry has been a vocal advocate of holding an independence referendum whether or not Boris Johnson’s Westminster government grants permission – something it is currently refusing to do. She argues that its legality can be tested in court. Sturgeon, on the other hand, has long advocated the safer course of waiting for Westminster to give its blessing to another vote, to ensure a referendum is legally watertight.
Cherry’s allies believe she has won the debate, after the SNP published its roadmap to independence, and suggested he could go ahead even without Westminster’s approval. But in a sign of her estrangement from Edinburgh management, Cherry was not consulted during the development of the plan.
Cherry has come close to a leadership position in the SNP in the past. In the 2017 election for leader of the party in Westminster, she was within a few votes of beating rival Ian Blackford. Colleagues think Cherry would be unlikely to win the same support again, such is the bad blood now. Only two MPs came to her public defense after she was sacked: Angus MacNeil and Kenny MacAskill – the only two others who were denied leading roles in the reshuffle in which Cherry was forced out.
But the Tory MP quoted earlier accused Cherry of ‘conceit’ – pointing out that few people fired from a leading role would do so Tweeter on their “hard work, results and solid reputation”, as Cherry did, then called on their party to rethink its approach.
As attention turns to the Edinburgh drama next week and Sturgeon could be unseated by the Salmond scandal, Cherry’s allies are pitching her as a possible successor, the flag bearer of the anti-Sturgeon faction. “Someone will emerge as a leader if Nicola is taken down,” said the friend who described her as “prickly” above. “And she’s almost anointed Jo Cherry.”
Alasdair Lane contributed reporting.