Andrew Whitaker: Sturgeon could aim for new Cabinet

BARRING any catastrophes, Nicola Sturgeon will be installed as the SNP’s new leader in just over a month – leaving her free to pick and choose a ministerial team for the final 18 months of her party’s second term in office.

Nicola Sturgeon may opt not to make too many sweeping changes. Picture: John Devlin

Strikingly, Alex Salmond barely changed his Cabinet line-up during his seven and a half years as First Minister, with all those originally appointed after the SNP’s 2007 victory still in the team. Of course, there have been additions to the ever-presents, most notably Mike Russell in the education brief and the elevation of Angela Constance and Shona Robison to the Cabinet.

Ms Sturgeon, herself an integral part of Mr Salmond’s line-up, may opt not to make too many sweeping changes, but it’s hard to imagine a new leader will not look to put her own stamp on the SNP’s winning side.

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John Swinney is widely viewed to be the Cabinet’s safest pair of hands as finance secretary, but after over seven years in that post, Ms Sturgeon may feel he would be ideally placed to take over as deputy first minister. The role could well include a brief across all government departments – the job that former deputy prime minister John Prescott was handed by Tony Blair.

Mr Swinney would be a hard act to follow in a brief that is fraught with political banana skins. But local government minister Derek Mackay, who is also chair of the SNP, would arguably be well suited to stepping into Mr Swinney’s shoes, as his current brief is part of the same government department.

Any government that is serious about not being viewed as out of touch has to pay heed to gender balance and that could mean at least some significant changes to the SNP’s Cabinet line-up.

Health secretary Alex Neil could find himself succeeded by Shona Robison, who has already established herself as a significant political force in the post of Cabinet secretary for the Commonwealth Games and sport.

SNP deputy leadership contender Angela Constance – the Cabinet secretary for training, youth and women’s employment – could be a contender to succeed Mr Russell as education secretary.

Kenny MacAskill, another political big-hitter, could be coming to the end of his Cabinet career, having just ridden out concerted efforts by the opposition to secure his resignation, following a summer of controversy over issues such as the routine arming of police and the use of stop and search.

The minister for transport and veterans, Keith Brown – a former Royal Marine – could be well placed to step into the justice role, having been forced to front the government’s emergency response to the harsh and chaotic winter conditions that gripped Scotland in late 2010.