Sturgeon set to axe MacAskill in cabinet reshuffle

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KENNY MacAskill is expected to be the most high-profile casualty when Nicola Sturgeon puts her own mark on the SNP administration by reshuffling her cabinet.

Last night, Ms Sturgeon was putting the finishing touches to the make-up of her team, amid intense speculation Mr Mac-Askill will lose his job as justice secretary.

Nicola Sturgeon is sworn in as First Minister at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon is sworn in as First Minister at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. Picture: PA

Ms Sturgeon’s aides indicated the reshuffle would happen “very shortly” and there were strong signs that the announcement will be made today.

Mr MacAskill has defied numerous calls to quit during his controversial spell in charge of the justice department.

A signal that he was finally on his way out emerged at Holyrood yesterday.

Fielding questions for the first time as First Minister, Ms Sturgeon pointedly failed to defend the justice secretary when Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie suggested “everyone knew he was going”.

Ms Sturgeon responded by listing some of the Scottish Government’s justice policies, but failed to mention Mr MacAskill.

After First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon’s spokesman was asked why she had not denied Mr MacAskill faced the sack. He said: “I am not going to indulge in fevered speculation. The First Minister will confirm her line-up very shortly.”

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When Mr MacAskill was asked about his future, at the launch of a scheme to tackle domestic abuse, he replied that it was a matter for the First Minister.

The current transport minister, Keith Brown, is a potential contender for the justice secretary’s job.

With Ms Sturgeon indicating she intends to fight for gender equality as Scotland’s first female First Minister, she is also expected to give top jobs to women.

Shona Robison, the Commonwealth Games minister, and Angela Constance, who, like Mr Brown, stood unsuccessfully for the SNP deputy leadership, could find themselves with new jobs. Ms Robison could be given the health brief at the expense of Alex Neil, while some have suggested Mike Russell could make way for Ms Constance at education.

Last night, the SNP’s opponents were taking it as read that Mr MacAskill will go.

“It would appear that time’s up for Kenny MacAskill as justice secretary,” John Lamont, the Conservative chief whip, said.

“His period in office has been littered with bad decisions, from his handling of the Megrahi case, to the creation of the single police force, to court closures and his botched attempts at reforming the laws on corroboration.

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“For some time now, the justice secretary’s judgment has been openly questioned by his colleagues as well as opponents.”

Ever since Mr MacAskill freed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, his time at the justice department has been dogged by controversy.

During Alex Salmond’s 2007-2011 minority government, Mr MacAskill faced calls to quit when a series of criminals absconded from open prison.

More recently, he oversaw the merging of Scotland’s regional forces into Police Scotland, a move that critics argue sacrificed local accountability in the eight forces – and led to the closure of 61 police office front counters.

There has also been concern over Police Scotland’s widespread use of stop and search powers, with one report saying 640,000 people had been subjected to them, including 25,000 children.

After Police Scotland’s formation, armed officers were routinely patrolling Scotland and guns were being carried even in remote areas.

There was concern the decision to change the deployment of armed officers had been taken without proper public scrutiny and Mr MacAskill was forced to review the policy.

Anger over the issue led to a motion of no-confidence being tabled against him last month, but the SNP’s majority ensured he survived.

The closure of 17 courts in Mr MacAskill’s reform programme has also been attacked. And further questions were raised about his credibility when he drove through legislation to scrap the need for corroboration in criminal trials – a central feature of Scots law for centuries. Earlier this year, he shelved the plans after a barrage of criticism.

Last month, he was embroiled in yet more controversy when he posted a tweet comparing poll tax defaulters to persecuted black people in the US.

Today’s expected reshuffle will come the day after Ms Sturgeon was sworn in as First Minister at the Court of Session.

Having attended the ceremony, she took part in First Minister’s Questions, during which she signalled a more consensual approach than that favoured by Mr Salmond.

She was tackled over access to cancer drugs and the early release of dangerous prisoners, and said she would adopt an open mind to suggestions offered by her opponents.

Challenged by Labour’s Jackie Baillie on delays in giving cancer patients life-extending drugs, Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to end a postcode lottery of treatment.

Ms Baillie highlighted the case of Jean MacDonald, from Glasgow, who had to pay £35,000 for drugs to fight her ovarian cancer when the same drugs were free to patients in Edinburgh.

In an attempt to move away from the combative style of Mr Salmond, the new First Minister said she wanted an approach that differed from the “usual defensive ding-dong”.

She said: “In my first day in the job, I am open-minded to any proposal on how we can do things better.”

A similar approach was adopted when Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson mentioned a high-profile rape case to highlight shortcomings in the justice system and the matter of freeing prisoners early.

Ms Sturgeon suggested that politicians could work together to look at the issue.

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