What does Nicola Sturgeon's new cabinet tell us about her priorities?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 23 May 2016 in Inside Politics

The clues were there to see, but this reshuffle was still full of surprises

The media had been camped outside Bute House since mid-morning, running through the various rituals that make up the reshuffle pantomime.

The routine quickly became familiar. An SNP politician would arrive and the press would spring into action, desperately shouting questions and thrusting forward cameras in the hope something would be let slip. 

The circus rarely, if ever, reveals who will be moving where, with the media forced to satisfy themselves with a regular “we’ll just have to wait and see” from each arrival, and wait until lunchtime to find out who would do what within Nicola Sturgeon’s new cabinet. The process may have been slow, or indeed pointless, but at least there was reward in the end. The reshuffle was actually far more interesting than many had expected.


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In fact, despite the fruitless attempts to glean information from those arriving at Bute House, there were some clues as to what would happen, and where Sturgeon would focus her efforts, before the lunchtime announcement.

By first thing in the morning, news had begun to trickle out of those who would be stepping down.

First, Richard Lochhead announced he would stand down as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment.

Pressure had been building on Lochhead for some time, with both the Tories and Lib Dems calling for him to be moved on because of the sense of failure surrounding delayed CAP payments to farmers. An Audit Scotland report into the fiasco was due the next day, with the watchdog warning that the manner in which the Scottish Government had handled problems with the farm payments’ IT system were “a serious concern”. 

One of the two longest standing cabinet secretaries – along with John Swinney – Lochhead said the decision was driven by family matters, with his wife having disclosed she had breast cancer last year.

He said: “After much thought in recent months, I have taken the decision that after nine incredible but hectic years as a cabinet secretary, the time has come to change the priorities in my life, especially in light of recent family circumstances.”

Alex Neil made a similar announcement later that morning. In his resignation letter, Neil said: “I believe we have laid the basis for an ambitious programme of reform for the next five years, especially in relation to housing, planning and social security policy.

“However, I now intend to concentrate on my constituency and other work which cannot be easily done whilst serving in the cabinet.”

Both moves followed discussions with Sturgeon, though whether Neil and Lochhead jumped or were pushed remained unclear.

In total, just three of the ten cabinet secretaries kept their positions – Shona Robison in health, Michael Matheson in justice and Fiona Hyslop in culture and external affairs, though her portfolio was expanded to include tourism. With five women and five men, the FM retained the 50-50 gender split she established in 2014.

Some had tipped Angela Constance, the education secretary, as a possible victim of Sturgeon’s plans. In the end, she stayed on as cabinet secretary, but in a new post – communities, social security and equalities – where she will be responsible for the implementation of new welfare powers being devolved to Scotland.

Other briefs were merged and altered. Lochhead’s old one, rural affairs, food and environment, was turned into two, with Fergus Ewing promoted to take over rural economy and connectivity, and environment, climate change and land reform – previously a ministerial portfolio – upgraded to cabinet secretary status, and filled by Roseanna Cunningham.

Clearly Sturgeon’s team had used the reshuffle as a means of highlighting priorities, and environmental groups were pleased with the increased emphasis she seemed to have placed on climate change.

As WWF Scotland director Lang Banks put it: “It’s really great to see the importance of climate change recognised with a dedicated cabinet secretary for the first time”.

He said: “We hope this translates into the introduction of firm new policies that put Scotland on course to realise the many benefits of becoming a zero-carbon economy, and look forward to working with the new cabinet secretary Roseanna Cunningham in this crucial role.”

But amid the tweaks, headlines focused on John Swinney, with the Deputy First Minister moving from cabinet secretary for finance, constitution and economy – where he spent the last nine years – to education, and Nicola Sturgeon splitting his old brief into two cabinet secretary positions, one for the economy, jobs and fair work and the other for finance and the constitution.

It was hard to know what to make of it all. With new financial powers on their way to the Scottish Parliament with the next stage of devolution, Swinney’s old brief will become increasingly powerful, and Sturgeon’s decision to give the portfolio to Derek Mackay shows how highly the former minister for transport and islands – someone she has tipped as a future leader – is esteemed.

Few expected Swinney to move at such a critical time. But, in retrospect, the decision to put Swinney in charge of education was perhaps predictable, given Sturgeon has repeatedly emphasised how central the brief, and particularly the need to close the attainment gap, is to her mission as FM. Announcing the decision to put her most experienced ally into education, Sturgeon was keen to frame the move as a statement of intent.

She said: “The central focus of the Scottish Government I lead will be ensuring that our education system is world class and that every child in Scotland is given the opportunity to fulfil their potential, no matter their background.”

Sturgeon added: “John’s record is exemplary, overseeing a succession of balanced budgets as well as delivering the recent fiscal framework deal that will underpin the new powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

“His appointment to this crucial role demonstrates how important education is to my government.”

Despite having previously suggested he would be reluctant to give up the finance brief, Swinney himself was quick to state his contentment with the decision, with the SNP’s former leader tweeting that he was “thrilled” to have been moved.

Of course, Swinney would say that regardless – Sturgeon could have moved him anywhere and received his public backing – but there was no doubt education bodies were pleased, with EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan describing it as “a clear indicator the First Minister continues to view support for education as perhaps the top priority for the Scottish Government”.

But while public bodies and campaign groups sent largely positive messages over the shape of the new cabinet, the noises from other areas were less enthusiastic. 

Stephen McCabe, leader of Inverclyde Council Labour Group, tweeted that Kevin Stewart was “the last person COSLA would have wanted as local government minister”, adding, somewhat dramatically, “we’re doomed...”

For Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, meanwhile, moving Fergus Ewing from the energy brief, where he had been seen as overly receptive to fracking “just exposes the fault lines in the SNP on the environment”.

He said: “The new cabinet is made up of the same old faces pushing the same old policies. There is no evidence that the new government will implement a programme that is anything but utterly timid.”

Rennie added: “We need bold change to help Scotland be the best again. That means making a transformational investment in education, increasing investment in mental health and GPs, and delivering on our green promises. The reshuffle we have seen today will not change anything.”

The Greens also welcomed Ewing’s move away from energy, with Patrick Harvie saying: “It’s pleasing to see Fergus Ewing, who has described fracking as an opportunity we must never close our minds to, moved away from the energy brief. His successor, Keith Brown, can expect further pressure from Greens and others to turn the temporary moratorium into a permanent ban to protect our communities.”

Given his record since 2009, Keith Brown’s promotion from infrastructure will come as little surprise, but with the Scottish Government’s review of fracking due to report in the summer, and with the position of the Scottish economy still precarious, taking on responsibility for the economy, fair work and also energy will be tricky, particularly given Westminster’s approach to renewables policy.

However, moving Ewing – often perceived as being on the right of the party – into a rural brief, with responsibility for some of the areas that saw the party lose support to the Tories in the election, may help smooth over some of the tensions that rose during Lochhead’s tenure.

All in all, it was a day of surprises, even if, looking back, most of it seems to make sense.

Will any of it work? To quote the line put out by the cabinet secretaries, arriving nervously at Bute House: we will just have to wait and see.

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