Scottish Government reshuffle: Sturgeon to ‘pick up pace’ of referendum talks
ALEX Salmond yesterday ramped up his drive for independence when he called a surprise Cabinet reshuffle that saw his deputy Nicola Sturgeon give up her health portfolio to take charge of the referendum.
• Nicola Sturgeon moves to infrastructure with referendum responsibility
• Alex Neil to replace Ms Sturgeon as health secretary
• Humza Yousaf, Paul Wheelhouse and Margaret Burgess join cabinet
• Stewart Stevenson and Bruce Crawford retire from government
After her appointment, Ms Sturgeon said she intended to “pick up the pace” of the constitutional talks being held with the UK government and declared that the vote would definitely be held in the autumn of 2014.
The Deputy First Minister took over responsibility for the referendum from Bruce Crawford, who has decided to retire as Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy following the death of his parents.
The changeover took place just a few hours before today’s key Scottish Government meeting with the Scotland Office minister David Mundell, which Ms Sturgeon will now attend
instead of Mr Crawford.
Ms Sturgeon’s move from health saw her take over Alex Neil’s infrastructure brief. It was almost a straight swap for Mr Neil, an experienced and capable operator with an old Labour background, who took over as Health Secretary. Mr Neil will also take the lead on gay marriage legislation.
The reshuffle saw a number of new faces enter the Scottish Government at junior ministerial level.
Margaret Burgess, Cunninghame South MSP, takes over from previous housing minister Keith Brown, who has moved to a transport brief.
Brian Adam stepped down as chief whip to be replaced by Joe Fitzpatrick, MSP for Dundee City West.
Stewart Stevenson will be stepping down as Minister for Environment and Climate Change and will be replaced by Paul Wheelhouse, MSP for South Scotland.
Humza Yousaf, MSP for Glasgow, joins the government as Minister for External Affairs and International Development.
Ms Sturgeon’s new portfolio also includes control over infrastructure and cities, but it was the move to put her at the centre of the referendum negotiations that caused most comment.
In the past, she has said she favours a one-question ballot, despite strong hints from Mr Salmond that he is prepared to consider a two-question vote that includes a devo-max option.
A two-question ballot would put Mr Salmond at odds with the UK government and many within his own party. But it would give him a fall back
position should Scotland vote against outright independence.
Yesterday, Ms Sturgeon refused to be drawn on the number of questions, but said: “I think there is no reason why we can’t resolve these process
issues very quickly. I am seeking to pick up the pace.”
When asked specifically about the number of questions, she said that such issues would be “resolved in the coming weeks”.
She also disagreed with suggestions that the SNP might be prepared to kick the referendum into the long-grass in an attempt to avoid defeat, by expressing total confidence that the poll would be delivered by the SNP’s autumn 2014 timetable.
When asked if the timetable would be met, she said: “Of course it will, yes.”
Ms Sturgeon’s change of job was another indication that the SNP is selecting its best team to fight for independence.
Last week Mr Salmond’s most trusted aide, Kevin Pringle, left his position as a Scottish Government adviser to become director of strategic communications for the SNP, a role that should give him a freer reign to work on the referendum.
But Ms Sturgeon’s departure as the longest-serving Health Secretary in the UK led to opposition parties claiming the SNP government’s “one and only priority” was the referendum.
Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “If anyone had any doubt that he has lost touch with the priorities of Scottish families, it was confirmed when he moved his most senior minister Nicola Sturgeon from health to the constitution.
“We face a real challenge delivering health services at a time of diminishing resources, but Nicola Sturgeon has run away from that to concentrate on the referendum.”
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “That the health of the nation now plays second fiddle to the break-up of Britain says it all about this SNP administration.
“The First Minister has moved his most trusted lieutenant from one of Scotland’s most critical briefs to pursue his narrow Nationalist agenda.”
The Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “This reshuffle shows the SNP government only has eyes for independence. They are more interested in running the referendum than running the country.”
The reshuffle was triggered by the retirement of Mr Crawford, who yesterday wrote to Mr
Salmond to explain why he wanted to step down from Cabinet. His letter said that Mr Crawford had told the First Minister two weeks ago that he wanted to pursue “a less arduous working life”.
Mr Crawford indicated that the death of his parents within 20 months of each other, with his mother passing away in July, had made up his mind.
Meanwhile, Finance Secretary John Swinney yesterday ruled out further devolution of financial power to Holyrood under the Scotland act.
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