FORMER Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has launched an attack on the sacking of Joanna Cherry from the SNP's frontbench at Westminster amid an angry backlash against the decision.

The East Lothian MP hit out strongly over Cherry's removal from her post as the party's home affairs and justice spokeswoman in the Commons and said the development would damage the independence fight.

"I know how highly rated Joanna Cherry is in UK justice circles as well the party grassroots in Scotland. She remains head and shoulders above most others and I for one stand by her. This is the leadership's call but many of us find this inexplicable and harmful to our cause," he wrote on Twitter this afternoon.

SNP MP Neale Hanvey also hit out.

He tweeted: "Disappointed that Joanna Cherry is off the Westminster front bench. However, she’s still on the front bench for independence. Eye on the prize."

The move comes amid tensions in the party over the route to independence and disagreements over transgender rights, with Cherry having previous raising concerns over the Scottish Government's plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act.

Further differences of views persist over Alex Salmond and whether the former First Minister and SNP leader should be readmitted to the party after being acquitted of all charges at his criminal trial last year. Cherry backed his readmission to the party.

One SNP parliamentarian told the National he believed Blackford had carried out the sacking with the approval of the First Minister.

"It's been well known that Jo and Nicola have not been getting on well for a long time," said the insider.

"Ian Blackford was the willing stooge to wield the knife. There is no way this would have happened without Nicola Sturgeon. Not a chance."

The source added: "This is a social and psychological slap down for Jo. But ultimatelyy, she gains a lot of time and... also if things go off the rails for Nicola with the Salmond inquiry, Jo will be in a prime position." 

SNP councillor and NEC member Caroline McAllister also criticised Cherry's sacking suggested the MP was being punished for speaking out against abuse.

She said: "I am staggered to read this. I am also deeply concerned that it appears you're been subjected to punitive measures despite being on the receiving end of abuse, smears & death threats. #VictimBlaming - not a good look."

Concerns over the sacking were also raised from within the legal profession and by political commentators. 

Advocate Roddy Dunlop QC said: "I don’t care about the politics of this. I do care about justice. Joanna Cherry has been an important voice in holding UKGov to account on justice, & on attacks on the legal profession. I hope her replacement is as strong."

Jessica Simor, a QC specialising in EU and public law, tweeted: "This is really bad news. So sorry."

READ MORE: SNP sack Joanna Cherry from Westminster frontbench team

Leading commenators Kevin McKenna and Lesley Riddoch also expressed astonishment at the sacking.

McKenna tweeted: "Joanna Cherry: I’ve been getting death threats and abuse. Police Scotland: We’ll give you 24hr protection. SNP: You’re fired."

Reacting to the news of Cherry's sacking Riddoch wrote simply: "This is bloody ridiculous."

Catherine Philp, diplomatic correspondent for The Times, said: "What a sad outcome for one so brilliant and principled. And, apparently deliberately taken wrongly for the hell of it. Poor move, SNP."

David Aaronvitch, a columnist for The Times's said: "Gosh. What can have gone wrong?"

Prominent writer and independence supporter Cameron McNeish was among those who raised concerns about the decision to remove Cherry, a QC, from the key portfolio.

"However much I respect Nicola Sturgeon SNP members now need answers. What is going on? Why are there such factions? Why has Joanna Cherry one of the best politicians we have, been sacked from the front bench? Was she seen as a leadership threat? Answers are required urgently," he wrote.

Cherry had been the SNP justice and home affairs spokeswoman at Westminster – but was also seen by many as being close to former leader Alex Salmond, as well as having come in for criticism from some for her stance on transgender issues.

The reshuffle revealed that her former role will be split with Anne McLaughlin appointed as the party's Westminster spokeswoman on justice and immigration, while Stuart McDonald will take the home affairs part of the brief.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry replaced by Stuart McDonald and Anne McLaughlin in SNP reshuffle

Cherry successfully challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plans for the prorogation of Parliament in 2019.  As the SNP Westminster reshuffle was announced, Cherry tweeted: "Despite hard work, results & a strong reputation I've been sacked today from @theSNP front bench."

She added: "Westminster is increasingly irrelevant to Scotland's constitutional future and @theSNP would do well to radically rethink our strategy."

The reshuffle saw four SNP MPs join the party's frontbench team in the Commons, with Patricia Gibson becoming spokeswoman for housing, communities and local government, while Angela Crawley takes on the role of shadow spokeswoman for the Attorney General.

Richard Thomson and Stephen Flynn, both of whom were only elected to the Commons in 2019, have also stepped up, becoming the party's Northern Ireland spokesman and business, energy and industrial strategy spokesman, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tommy Sheppard switches to constitutional affairs, having previously been the SNP's cabinet office spokesman.

In a statement, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said they party had a "wealth of talent and experience", and that the reshuffle "ensures we are in the best possible position to hold the UK Government to account during this global pandemic and the aftermath of Brexit, to support colleagues ahead of the Scottish elections, and to deliver independence".

The National: Ian Blackford

Blackford stressed: "Team working and co-operation are key to ensure results and this reshuffle will give us a strong team to take us forward.

"We have an incredibly hard-working group of MPs – I thank them all for their commitment and congratulate those in new positions.

"I was pleased to welcome four MPs to the front bench; Patricia Gibson MP, Angela Crawley MP, Richard Thomson MP and Stephen Flynn MP. "

Meanwhile, SNP MP Neil Gray is co-ordinate the party's inclusion and wellbeing team, before stepping down from Westminster as he seeks election to the Scottish Parliament in May.

Blackford said: "I thank him for all his work and wish him the very best."

There was no mention of Ms Cherry in his statement, with the SNP Westminster leader adding: "We are at a crucial time in politics. Never before have we faced a challenge as great as the global pandemic, and Scotland is acutely feeling the ramifications of leaving the European Union.

"With the Scottish elections on the horizon and independence in touching distance, our new team is ready to work hard for Scotland."