A farcical U-turn on transgender prisoners is increasing the pressure on Scotland’s embattled First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, with reports circulating of infighting among her team.

Keith Brown, the SNP’s justice minister, has said that trans prisoners with a history of violence against women will no longer be held in female jails in Scotland.

The ban had been introduced, he said, to ensure the ongoing safety of women prisoners while the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) reviews its management of trans inmates.

It comes after the Scottish First Minister’s humiliating climbdown last week, in which she was forced to back the SPS’s decision to transfer the rapist Isla Bryson – who identifies as a woman but has not legally changed gender – from a women’s prison to a men’s prison, after weeks of fierce criticism. 

Defending the Bryson decision, Sturgeon said that “as a general principle”, rapists should not be held in women’s prisons but provided no guarantee this would apply across the board, or that trans prisoners charged with other sexual offences would be included.

The latest back-peddling is another repudiation of Sturgeon’s own flagship policy. She staked a hefty chunk of political capital pushing through a gender bill that would make it easier for trans people to self-identify as the opposite gender. The SNP – backed by the Lib Dems and the Greens – voted down an amendment that would have excluded those charged with sexual offences.

The latest decision came hours after Dr Alice Edwards, a UN expert on torture, demanded clarity on the Scottish government’s position: “Female prisoners have a right to be protected from violent sex offenders no matter how they identify. Where is the common sense?”

The whole sorry saga couldn’t have gone much worse for Sturgeon. Now, nationalist rebels tell of a fierce backlash from party members and outraged voters. Sturgeon has long been seen as impregnable, a leader who will choose her own time of departure from office. Political history suggests that when the dam breaks, even the grandest and over-confident of leaders can end up surprised by how fast they are swept away. Watch this space.

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