Joanna Cherry on Supreme Court victory and SNP leadership speculation

It’s more than 48 hours since Joanna Cherry emerged victorious from the Supreme Court, and the SNP MP who was the driving force behind the case still hasn’t had time to celebrate.

Sunday, 29th September 2019, 8:01 am
Updated Sunday, 29th September 2019, 11:07 am
Scottish Nationalist Party lawmaker Joanna Cherry speaks outside the Supreme Court in London, Tuesday, Sept. 24. Pic: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

From giving interviews outside the court, to touring the TV studios until late on Tuesday, and then standing up in the Commons the following morning to demand the Attorney General’s prorogation legal advice – it was a constitutional landmark hundreds of years in the making, but for Cherry it has been a whirlwind.

“I haven’t even had a glass of bubbly yet,” she tells Scotland on Sunday when we sit down at Westminster – reconvened on the order of Supreme Court president Lady Hale. “But I do intend to this weekend.”

Political geekery

Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller leaves the Millbank broadcast studios near the Houses of Parliament in central London on September 25, 2019. Photo by ISABEL INFANTES / AFP)ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty Images

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In anxious times when political geekery is enjoying a moment of cool, this week made breakout stars of its lead performers, like Lady Hale, whose distinctive spider brooch helped sell thousands of knockoff t-shirts bearing its image.

“I think I’ve really enjoyed the fact that women were to the forefront of both cases,” Cherry says, noting the contribution of campaigner Gina Miller, who led a parallel case in the English courts, and Elaine Motion, the executive chairman of solicitors Balfour+Mason who represented the petitioners - the case saw them reverse a years-old working relationship where previously, Motion instructed Cherry when she was at the Bar.

On social media, the women have been dubbed ‘the Supremes’, and others have cast the victory for a group of older women as a rebuke to the Prime Minister for his macho rhetoric.

“I’ve liked the hashtag ‘girly swots’, that’s been quite good fun… it’s been a good week for girly swots, and I quite like that aspect of it.

“You know, I’m in my 50s - I don’t know what age Brenda Hale is, but she’s about to retire so she must be around about 70ish [Hale is 74].

“And I think sometimes women find as they get older, they become overlooked and invisible. It’s really put older and middle-aged women on the map this week, and I’ve quite enjoyed that.”

The most-watched moment of constitutional law in living memory - 4 million people are believed to have tuned in on Tuesday morning - had Cherry as its political face. Not just because the QC was the lead petitioner of more than 75 parliamentarians, but from actively seeking the profile, adding the #Cherrycase hashtag to her posts on social media.

‘We’ve got a tree for you’

Thanks to this case and last year’s action at the Europea Court of Justice on the revocability of Article 50, she now has name recognition few Scottish MPs from the third party in the Commons can expect.

But the stark divisions of the Brexit debate mean that as much as she is now a hero, Cherry is also now a hate figure. Pro-Brexit protesters told her that ‘We’ve got a tree for you’ outside the Supreme Court, and she reveals that new threats made towards her as a result of the case have been passed on to the Metropolitan Police.

“We had a slightly concerning email this week,” she says. “When I was walking home, I had people recognising me and shouting abuse at me. And so I had to raise that with the police and parliamentary authorities.”

Cherry laughs as she describes herself as “quite boring” and a ‘girly swot’ from an early age - but also someone who isn’t afraid to pick fights. “I was quite swotty at school, but also used to get into trouble a lot for being opinionated and talking too much, which might not be surprising,” she says. “Swotty but also... not a conventional person. I kind of I’ve always done my own thing.

“I find it difficult not to say what I think, particularly in a situation where I think something’s been done wrongly.”

She adds: “And I went to a convent school as well, so as you can imagine that rubbed the nuns up the wrong way.”

You could say not a lot has changed. Cherry’s profile has also made her a target within her own party. Cherry has had an uneasy time over the past year: bullying allegations that were dismissed by Commons authorities sparked a furious row within the SNP, fuelled by the MP herself, who told a newspaper that the claims were part of a “smear” campaign against her. She was equally brutally briefed against: one insider said she was “fighting everyone” and “the best example of someone who’s intelligent but not clever”.

Leadership speculation

Her rising profile has led to renewed speculation that she could seek the leadership of the party, or even try to force Nicola Sturgeon out. One SNP insider claimed she was a populist ‘Boris Johnson’ figure within the independence movement. This week, Cherry endorsed the former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to be SNP candidate for the East Lothian seat at Westminster, leading to claims that a faction close to the former First Minister Alex Salmond - who is set to face trial on multiple counts of attempted rape and sexual assault - is on the march within the party.

The Edinburgh Southwest MP doesn’t deny future ambitions, but she dismisses talk of a plot.

“To suggest that I am about to mount a leadership challenge is really ridiculous, particularly as I’m an MP at Westminster and the leader of the SNP has to be at Holyrood so that he or she can be First Minister,” Cherry says.

“There is no vacancy. But I’m not ruling myself out as a potential future leadership figure. It’s not something I would rule out or rule in at this stage, I will see how things develop.

“I have no doubt that I want to be part of the indyref2 campaign and I would eventually like to serve in the government of an independent Scotland, if I’m lucky enough to be elected to the independent parliament and get to that level.”

As for the rows within the SNP, Cherry is also quick to dismiss them as a “‘woman, get back in your box and know your place’ attitude from certain people” - and warns her critics that she has broad support in the party.

“There’s a very small minority of people in the SNP who have sought to smear and undermine me because I am a successful, forthright woman who says what she thinks,” she says. “But they’re very much in the minority.

“There’s a huge streak of misogyny in it. And I’m really glad that I’ve managed to face it down successfully. I am extremely popular with the membership, and I think maybe some people don’t like that very much.”

Misogyny in politics

Overall, Cherry says, “the political world is far more misogynistic than the legal world”. Research by Amnesty International at the 2017 general election found that Cherry - despite not yet having the profile she now enjoys - was the second most-abused MP online, after Diane Abbott. Some of it was sectarian abuse from Scottish trolls - “it’s amazing how many people go to your Wikipedia page and find out you’re a Catholic” - and she is also targeted for being a lesbian. The biggest factor was the one that united all the ‘top five’ most abused MPs: all are older women. “How dare a middle aged woman have opinions and act like she has the same right to be listened to as a man,” says Cherry. “I think a lot of the opprobrium I attract, that’s what it’s about.”

Abusers have sought her out, but Cherry has stepped into other battles. The MP was one of 15 SNP parliamentarians who signed a letter in April calling on the Scottish Government not to “rush” changes to the Gender Recognition Act, in a bitter dispute around trans rights that has cut uncomfortably across the party. It was another bruising experience: she had to seek police protection after challenging social media executives over their response to violent language from trans activists. Cherry vigorously denies accusations of being a transphobe, and successfully sued website Pink News for a report incorrectly claiming she was under investigation for homophobia.

She claims debate in Scotland is being polluted by rhetoric from the United States, where Cherry says trans rights are under serious attack, and explains that her caution about protecting single sex spaces is informed by three years as a specialist sex crimes prosecutor.

“I came out 30 years ago, when it was really difficult to come out as a lesbian,” Cherry says. “People were still losing their jobs and there was no equality before the law.

“There have been massive gains and equality in England and Scotland. And I think we have to recognise that and celebrate it. And I think it is distorting the situation to suggest that there’s any attack on trans rights.

“There’s a healthy debate about the circumstances in which gender self-identification should take place. As somebody who campaigned against Section 28, it’s very galling to be called a transphobe.”

Cherry also found herself at the centre of a storm during the 2017 general election, when during a televised debate, nurse Claire Austin challenged Nicola Sturgeon over conditions in the NHS. The MP told the BBC that she had been “advised that the nurse who spoke is in fact the wife of a Conservative councillor - so she’s probably best placed to know she’d be considerably worse off south of the border.”

The claim, which Cherry says was passed to her by SNP figures in the ‘spin room’, was wrong. “I made a mistake. Even if I thought the information was verified, I shouldn’t have said it. There’s no point in ever attacking a member of the public who’s asked a legitimate question. And I know that now, and I won’t do it again.”

But Cherry says the row has been “misrepresented” because she didn’t post on social media that Austin was married to a Tory councillor, and didn’t contribute to the ‘pile on’ by SNP supporters that followed. “Through naivety, I think it’s quite difficult to go from being a very private figure as I was to being a very public figure,” she adds.

At a certain point, I suggest her internal critics may have a point - she’s fighting on a lot of fronts. “That’s the lot of a strong woman in any profession. That’s what it’s about.” And I finish by asking her if she believes the many public rows have distorted how she is seen.

“I think people think,” she begins, and pauses. “I think I am actually a very warm, kind person. And I think the person that my girlfriend sees and the person that my parents see, and the person that those who are close to me see is different from the person in the public eye.”

Cherry adds: “But when you’re in the public eye, you have to have a protective shell, particularly when you’re a woman.” That is certainly where she finds herself after this week.