The SNP’s ruling body is under pressure to reverse a “stitch up” which led to a leading rival to Nicola Sturgeon abandoning her bid to win a Holyrood seat.
Joanna Cherry, the QC and Edinburgh MP, had been set to stand for the SNP nomination in Edinburgh Central against Angus Robertson, the party’s former deputy leader, who is also keen to enter the Scottish Parliament next year.
The fight to be selected as the candidate had been seen as a proxy battle between the two main factions within the party.
Ms Cherry has issued a series of thinly-veiled attacks on Ms Sturgeon’s approach to independence and is an ally to Alex Salmond, while Mr Robertson is part of the party establishment has emphasised his loyalty and close ties to the First Minister. Both would be seen as leading contenders for the party leadership, should Ms Sturgeon step down.
Following the press reports about the decision of @theSNP's NEC, I have issued a statement about the @EdinCentralSNP Holyrood 2021 selection. Please read my full statement, I will not be making any further comments at this stage. pic.twitter.com/pFsBGfF6Mt— Joanna Cherry QC (@joannaccherry) July 31, 2020
However, Ms Cherry announced she would withdraw from the race after the SNP’s National Executive Committee (NEC) voted for a rule change that would mean MPs having to resign their Westminster seat if they were chosen as a Holyrood candidate, ahead of the election.
She said this would have meant making her staff redundant during a pandemic which she was not prepared to do, calling the NEC move “unprecedented” and “unreasonable”.
The decision caused outrage among parts of the SNP grassroots, who saw it as an underhand attempt to benefit Mr Robertson.
Following the backlash, Mr Robertson, the party’s former Westminster leader, suggested that Ms Cherry should have been able to stand against him, saying Edinburgh Central members had been “let down” by the decision and issuing a plea for party unity.
Seen a lot of senior SNP members - members who are normally quiet or supportive of party line - opposing the decision to block MPs from switching to Holyrood. NEC has made a massive error. Astounding that they didn't foresee the reaction - or didn't care.— Rory Steel (@RorySteel94) August 2, 2020
He added: “The SNP NEC has made the wrong decision and must ensure the widest and fairest contest. We need the best candidate to win the nomination without any interference.”
In a further development, Marco Biagi, the former minister who represented the constituency between 2011 and 2016 and is popular with activists, also entered the race for the nomination on Saturday evening, claiming members “deserve choice”.
In a rare show of internal dissent, several prominent SNP ministers have also publicly spoken out against the NEC’s decision.
Mike Russell, the constitution secretary, said no MSP or MP should be “excluded” from a selection in their own area. Humza Yousaf, the Justice Secretary, said he would not have voted for putting “barriers in the way of MPs that want to stand for Holyrood”.
A further outcry broke out after over a move to block James Dornan, the Glasgow Cathcart MSP, from seeking reselection in his own seat.
Mr Dornan had said he would be retiring from Holyrood but later changed his mind. The NEC attempted to impose an all-female shortlist on the seat, which would have blocked Mr Dornan, but quickly reversed the decision.
The u-turn over Mr Dornan’s seat has increased pressure on the NEC to backtrack over its stance on MPs seeking selection for Holyrood.
Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for the Western Isles, accused the party’s ruling body of “ganging up” on Ms Cherry and suggested there were “rotten apples” in the NEC. He called on the body to reverse its decision about MPs standing for Holyrood "fast".
Phillipa Whitford, the Ayrshire SNP MP and her party’s Commons health spokeswoman, said MPs were now “trapped at Westminster with no straightforward way to put themselves forward for Scotland’s own parliament.”
Despite polls suggesting that support for independence is at record levels and the SNP is on course to claim a majority at next year’s election, there has been growing criticism from sections of the party at Ms Sturgeon’s failure to secure a second independence referendum.
The party is also split over the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against Mr Salmond, who remains hugely popular within the party, and Ms Sturgeon’s stance on policies such as gender recognition reform.
John Curtice, the respected polling expert, has warned that divisions within the SNP could be the “biggest risk” to the party’s goal of Scottish independence.
The Edinburgh Central seat is currently held by Ruth Davidson for the Conservatives, but she is stepping down at the next election and the SNP is confident it can reclaim the constituency.
Supporters of the rule changes have said they will ensure by-elections for Westminster seats, where an MP is seeking to move parliaments, could be held on the same day as the Holyrood elections, saving the party resources.
An SNP spokesman said: “The NEC backed an approach that will guarantee constituents a full-time commitment from day one, and minimise the disruption to voters."