JOANNA Cherry is in pole position to challenge Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP leadership, allies of the prominent MP claimed last night amid a furious backlash over her sacking.

The MP for Edinburgh South West and QC was dramatically removed as the party’s home affairs and justice spokesperson in a reshuffle of its Commons' team which was announced by the SNP leader in Westminster Ian Blackford yesterday afternoon.

It came amid tensions in the party over the route to independence and disagreements over transgender rights, with Cherry previously raising concerns over the Scottish Government’s plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act.

READ MORE: SNP sack Joanna Cherry from Westminster front bench team

Bitter differences of views also persist over Alex Salmond and whether the former First Minister and SNP leader should be re-admitted to the party after being acquitted of all charges at his criminal trial last year. Cherry backed his return.

One SNP parliamentarian told The National he believed Blackford had carried out the sacking with the approval of the First Minister – but that ultimately the move could be to Cherry’s advantage.

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

READ MORE: Alyn Smith and Joanna Cherry clash over call for Holyrood to hold indyref2

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 ultimately, 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. She will be the obvious candidate. Nicola 
has perhaps anointed her successor today.”

​READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon the most popular leader in the UK, poll finds

The insider went on: “To my mind it’s a big loss of self-control. Perhaps it shows other pressures are getting to people. Nicola has been the model of self-control, but she’s obviously just lost it with Jo.”

Cherry along with former deputy party leader Angus Robertson (standing for the seat of Edinburgh Central in the Holyrood election in May) and Finance Secretary Kate Forbes are the politicians most commonly talked about as potential successors to Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and First Minister. 

Cherry had planned to switch from Westminster to a seat at Holyrood in May, but has claimed she was blocked from standing in Edinburgh Central after a rule change by the SNP’s national executive committee (NEC), which made it harder for SNP MPs to become an MSP.

Asked about her leadership ambitions, Cherry told Holyrood in an interview in 2019: “I’d love to play a leadership role in a future independent Scotland, but leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being the leader of the party or being the first minister.”

She added: “There’s lots of leadership roles, and I want to play my part, but no woman should ever write herself off as a potential leader. I’ve worked very hard in my role and I know I’ve got quite a big public profile now and I’m popular with the party membership, but there isn’t a vacancy for an SNP leader. We have a very strong and effective leader and there’s no vacancy.”

Meanwhile, amid a furious row over her sacking, the former Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill was among those to attack the decision.

The East Lothian MP hit out strongly over Cherry’s removal from her post 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.

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.”

Another ally and former senior party official told The National the sacking was an episode of "tall poppy syndrome".

“It speaks for itself. I think they have gone mad, quite insane, across a range of fronts," said the source.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry: Holyrood should hold indyref2 if Boris Johnson blocks new vote

“The main thing to remember is that it’s only a matter of weeks since she was elected by the party membership to the NEC as top of the poll. 

“You can’t then flagrantly insult the membership by sacking arguably your most talented front-bencher ... This is tall poppy syndrome writ large and just the opposite of how you lead a party.

“The leadership on a range of fronts are clearly suffering from some sort of lockdown syndrome and a collective madness which has been developing under pressure. It’s certainly not the most sensible way to proceed in politics.

“I watched Nicola’s statement on transphobia last week – what was that about? Joanna has been offered up as a sacrifice to this entryist grouping which has seized the affection of Nicola Sturgeon.

​READ MORE: Joanna Cherry sacked because she's 'not a team player and upsets people'

“If you had asked me five years ago was the SNP in danger of entryism I would have said probably, but if you had then asked me for a list of possible entryists then trans activists would have been somewhat far down the list. 

“As for the vote on the executive on Sunday – they’re totally nuts. They have an opinion from counsel who says they will lose on this issue, and there will eventually be hell to pay for that. 

“It’s a mixture of arrogance  and panic, and I’m not sure which is the greater. But for any action there is a reaction and on the sacking of Joanna there’s going to be a huge reaction.”

A former MP and NEC member told The National: “They’ll say it’s just a reshuffle, but it’s not – this is a declaration of war. 

“Why would you put somebody like Joanna on the back benches where she can really make mischief?” 

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon outlines 'Plan B' to European newspaper readers

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 outside the party, in the legal profession and by 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."

Leading pro independence columnists 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, wrote: "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.

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.

Cherry successfully challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plans for the prorogation of Parliament in 2019 in his bid to push ahead with his plans to leave the EU - for which she won plaudits among the anti-Brexit community across the UK.

In a major speech ahead of the SNP's conference last November she set out proposals for Holyrood to bring in legislation to hold a second independence referendum as a way of overcoming Boris Johnson's failure to agree a new vote.

Her plans were criticised at the time by MPs such as Alyn Smith, regarded as close to the leadership, but then later adopted by the Scottish Government's Constitution Secretary Michael Russell in a new 11 point strategy and backed by the First Minister.

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."