Ministerial musical chairs for a government tired of governing

Reshuffles are usually dramatic – yesterday’s in Holyrood was like a bloodbath.

But often they fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. In 1962, Harold Macmillan abruptly sacked his Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd and six senior ministers in a ruthless shake-up. Nicola Sturgeon upturned her ministry for similar reasons – like Macmillan’s Tories, the SNP is too long in power, struggling to deliver, and flat out of ideas.

But Macmillan, although acting in haste, at least gave the impression of resolution and decisiveness.

Sturgeon’s game of ministerial musical chairs was both brutal and bemusing, coming amid scenes of policy retreat and political confusion at Holyrood. The Night of the Long Knives revived as the Afternoon of the Raised Eyebrows.

The Westminster SNP group had got the ball rolling the previous evening by abstaining on the expansion of Heathrow, which the Scottish Government firmly supports.

This led to absurd scenes in the chamber yesterday as (soon to be former) Transport Minister Humza Yousaf tried to reconcile the two positions. Nothing had changed, apart from the SNP’s vote.

Then Education Secretary John Swinney tore up his controversial Education Bill but claimed it was only because he could already implement much of it without legislation. This was followed, without a hint of irony, by a debate on the importance of the UK Government respecting the Scottish parliament.

Only then did the firings begin. The Bute House spin machine revved up to assure us no one had been fired. Departing ministers had simply resigned. And Leon Trotsky left politics to spend more time with his ice pick.

The pretence that ministers have resigned helps skirt an awkward issue for the First Minister – her decision to dump close personal friend and long-time political ally Shona Robison.

Robison’s letter to Sturgeon spoke about trauma in her personal life. Even so, it is not callous to say that the trouble with Shona wasn’t Shona’s troubles – it was her unsuitability for the job.

Health Secretary is one of the most demanding and scrutinised posts in government. Robison wasn’t up to it, and her friendship with the First Minister – and the not unjustified feeling that she was in receipt of special treatment because of it – only ratcheted up the pressure.

Most of the failings in Scotland’s health service predate Robison’s tenure but that is a polite way of saying she didn’t make an ounce of difference. Targets continued to be missed, operations went on being cancelled, and scandals in NHS Lothian (the ‘massaging’ of waiting times figures) and NHS Tayside (financial incompetence) festered.

She could get through all of this while parliament was holding yet another debate on independence or Brexit but Richard Leonard forced her performance onto the agenda by raising harrowing personal stories of patients’ ill-treatment by the SNP-run NHS. Robison’s departure marks his first ministerial scalp.

The task of turning around Scotland’s ailing health service now falls to Jeane Freeman. Her entry into the Cabinet was no surprise after doing much of the heavy lifting in the Social Security portfolio despite technically being the junior minister.

It was something of an open secret that Freeman was the woman driving policy forward rather than the nominal cabinet secretary Angela Constance. Now Constance has been let go and Freeman has been handed one of the biggest ministries to run.

She is formidable and both feared and respected by the opposition, though they will be hoping Health proves to be a millstone rather than a springboard. Either way, the Cabinet has been given an injection of talent and Derek Mackay now has a rival for the title of heir apparent to Nicola Sturgeon.

Keith Brown’s ‘resignation’ is a bit of meat and a bit of gruel for party members. It means he will be devoting his attentions exclusively to rebuilding the campaigning machine after the setbacks of 2016 and 2017 – but it also removes him from the heart of government decision-making. Without his Cabinet role to bolster him, Brown will have to work up his own power base.

Brown’s absence, though it may be of longer-term benefit to the party, deprives the Government of a safe pair of hands and a minister capable of more than docilely signing off on whatever civil servants put in front of him.

The revolving door at the top of Scottish policing has shunted Michael Matheson out of the Justice ministry and into a new Cabinet-level post of Transport Secretary. Nicola Sturgeon put Matheson in charge of Police Scotland and now ScotRail. There are more direct ways of telling a man you don’t like him.

Matheson’s replacement Humza Yousaf takes a huge step up, not only into the Cabinet but into one of its toughest gigs. If Yousaf can knock Police Scotland into shape and restore public confidence in the criminal justice system, he will have rewarded Sturgeon’s confidence in him and set himself up as another potential successor.

He can also feel proud to be the first Asian and the first Muslim Scot to make it into the Cabinet.

The new Cabinet is twice the size of the six-person team Alex Salmond appointed when he came to power in 2007. It’s also not all that new. Four of Salmond’s first term Cabinet secretaries are still there today.

Sturgeon’s replenished team remains ‘gender balanced’, a term that roughly translates as: ‘There’s a reason Fiona Hyslop is still there.’ This is not a particularly fresh Cabinet but we are seeing the early signs of the torch being passed to the younger generations in the promotions of Yousaf and Aileen Campbell.

Further announcements on the junior ministry are expected today. Possible appointments include Jenny Gilruth and Kate Forbes, both of whom would bring energy to a Government that, even after yesterday’s reshuffle, is still low on the voltage meter.

There are others who will not be missed. Maureen Watt is out as Mental Health Minister, her third ministerial job and the third in which she made no discernible mark. Seldom has a minister of such low capacity been put in charge of a portfolio with such high stakes.

Annabelle Ewing’s sacking from the Community Safety and Legal Affairs brief was inevitable after the Government’s Football Act went down to defeat. Ewing’s graceless performance that day – including snide remarks towards Labour MSP James Kelly – confirmed that the job was beyond her.

When the dust settles on a hectic and at times harebrained day, Nicola Sturgeon hopes to have a new frontline to take her Government forward and fight back against Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives and a Labour Party that is slowly gaining in confidence.

But the First Minister should be beware superstitions about the reinvigorating power of cabinet reshuffles. They stir the blood, get the juices flowing, give the corridors of power a bit of a spring clean – but they don’t in themselves turn governments around.

Macmillan rejuvenated his Cabinet and even got the polls going in his favour again. Still, the government was unceremoniously dropped by the electorate two years later.

All governments have a shelf life, a ‘best before’ date after which the country gets sick of looking at them. Nicola Sturgeon’s Government has been flagging since at least the 2016 Holyrood elections.

The country is growing tired of a Government that has grown tired of governing. It will take more than a fresh photo on the steps of Bute House to turn that around.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government (cc-by-nc/2.0).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: