Yesterday morning, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster group called an emergency meeting at which they voted to sack Joanna Cherry from her frontbench role as the party’s Justice spokesperson.
This is not the first move the Nationalist leadership has made against Cherry, a high-profile critic of Nicola Sturgeon who is widely seen as an ally of Alex Salmond. The party previously changed its rules on MPs seeking election to the Scottish Parliament in a blatant effort to prevent her from contesting Edinburgh Central this year.
But it is nonetheless an escalation of the civil strife which has been brewing inside the SNP for a while now, and perhaps a sign of the mounting pressure Nicola Sturgeon is under as MSPs continue to press the Scottish Government over the Salmond affair.
The rift between the First Minister and her predecessor is so deadly because it maps on to several other splits which have been opening up between different parts of the SNP over highly emotive subjects such as independence strategy and gender issues. Cherry is a vocal feminist critic of the Nationalists’ hard pivot towards trans activists, which has become a source of growing tension between different elements of the party.
So too has a recent decision to give disabled and ethnic minority candidates all the top spots on the SNP’s regional lists in this year’s Holyrood elections. Taken alongside the recent victory by opponents of the leadership in elections to the party’s National Executive Committee, it is clear that the SNP’s previous iron discipline is rusting fast.
None of this means that the disgruntled activists pose an immediate threat to Sturgeon, who still commands the loyalty of the great majority of her MPs, MSPs, and activists, most of whom surely recognise that she is an absolutely indispensable asset to the cause of independence.
But it does nonetheless leave the First Minister more vulnerable than she would otherwise be. If Sturgeon had the SNP phalanx of old behind her, she could face her opponents in the Scottish Parliament with much more security in her position. Were she not mired in the Salmond scandal, she could probably be much more sanguine about a dissatisfied minority inside her own party. As it is, there are people ready to strike if the Holyrood inquiry does enough political damage – or if the First Minister fails to induce Boris Johnson to grant another independence referendum later this year.