Analysis: Nicola Sturgeon's Cabinet reshuffle has caution at its heart

The deck of cards has been shuffled and the kings and queens of Nicola Sturgeon’s Cabinet have been duly anointed.

Despite all the wild speculation about just who would or would not be in the First Minister’s circle of trust after May 6 – which saw many long-term SNP ministers retire and the election of many new, diverse MSPs – the ten people now holding the reins of government are all rather familiar.

Caution is a word that Ms Sturgeon has used consistently over the past year in her approach to the Covid lockdown and restrictions. It seems it is now at the root of her reshuffle too, along with control, assuring that either she or John Swinney will be running the whole show.

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While Mr Swinney’s never-in-doubt reappointment as Deputy First Minister came on Tuesday, along with a new title of Covid recovery Tsar, on Wednesday the others trooped into Bute House one by one, saying little, but knowing they had made it to the top of the pile.

Humza Yousaf MSP arrives at Bute House as the new Cabinet is unveiled. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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There was Humza Yousaf (justice to health and social care) and Kate Forbes (finance to economy and finance) – the two people Ms Sturgeon believes could replace her some day as SNP leader.

There was Michael Matheson (transport to net zero, energy and transport) and Shirley-Anne Somerville (social security and older people to education) – though she appeared virtually given a Covid case in her family.

Shona Robison, former health secretary and close friend of the First Minister, was back, as was Keith Brown, former economy secretary.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon(c) alongside her newly formed Cabinet l-r Shona Robison, Michael Matheson, Kate Forbes, John Swinney, Humza Yousaf, Mairi Gougeon , Keith Brown and Angus Robertson on the steps of Bute House in Edinburgh.

The only reasonably fresh face is Mairi Gougeon, promoted from junior minister (public health and sport) to Cabinet (rural affairs and islands).

The only new MSP is Angus Robertson, and his face is well kent given his many years as an MP and leader of the SNP group in Westminster. He takes on the constitution, external affairs and culture portfolio.

The three most vital roles are those now held by Ms Forbes, Ms Somerville and Mr Yousaf who, along with Mr Swinney, will now have to prove their mettle in getting Scotland’s economy, education and health services back on track post-pandemic.

The NHS has seen its already long treatment time waiting lists lengthen and there’s a backlog of screenings and operations to be dealt with, as well as getting the vaccination programme complete.

Waiting times have already proved a major headache for the government – indeed they saw Ms Robison stand down in June 2018 after months of pressure, and have since never been resolved.

Quite why Ms Sturgeon believes Mr Yousaf is the right man for the job is not entirely clear – he has not particularly shone in previous roles and is not known for collegiate working so vital in health.

Indeed her belief in his effectiveness is not universally shared in her party. Perhaps his appointment could just be to ensure that she herself, a former health secretary with a strong streak of micro-management, will be able to steer the recover in the way she wants.

Yet it’s all too imaginable that Labour’s Jackie Baillie danced a jig when she heard she will face him across the Chamber.

Mr Yousaf comes from the justice brief, where he handled the controversial Hate Crime Bill – the aftermath of which now lands on the desk of Mr Brown. Mr Brown was once the economy secretary but has also held briefs in infrastructure, housing, veterans, schools and skills.

A jack-of-all-trades, he will be under pressure to master this latest one. As well as a potential review of that particular piece of legislation, he will be expected to keep to Mr Yousaf’s word the recommendations of the misogyny working group will be put into law.

Then there are the problems of prison over-crowding, the mental health of prisoners, the solicitors’ strike over legal aid, the huge backlog in court cases, discontent in the police over how they’ve been treated through Covid, and the little matter of sectarianism, which has reared its ugly head again.

Education, however, is perhaps the biggest problem facing the government.

By removing Mr Swinney, Ms Sturgeon might have thought the debacle that awaits this summer when non-exam exam results are published might not go too badly.

Indeed Ms Somerville is already known in education circles, having been a junior minister in the department in the past, and is believed to have the listening skills which Mr Swinney was accused of lacking.

However, whether she is tough enough to handle the onslaught that awaits from opposition politicians, parents, teachers and the pupils themselves – and indeed to do something about the demands to radically alter the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland – is yet to be seen. Whether she can also go her own way and not be influenced by Mr Swinney, whose Covid role includes helping get the education system back on its feet, is also up for debate. However opposition education spokesmen – Tory Jamie Greene and Labour’s Michael Marra – will not be put out that they are facing Somerville rather than Swinney.

There’s little doubt, however, that steel runs through the veins of Ms Forbes.

She stepped up to the plate at short notice on finance to deliver a budget when Derek Mackay vanished from public life overnight, and has since delivered her own, carefully negotiating with the Scottish Greens to get exactly what she needed to get it through Parliament.

There had been talk that she would be moved to a more “human” portfolio, but instead Ms Sturgeon has widened her remit to bring her cerebral talents to bear on the whole economy. She will relish the challenge, but again might not be too happy if Mr Swinney decides to get over-involved in her areas of interest.

Ultimately though, the jobs and future prospects of hundreds of thousands of Scots, many of whom face redundancy when the UK Government’s furlough payments come to an end, are now in her hands and scrutiny will be intense.

Michael Matheson remains with his transport brief in much the same way the two CalMac ferries remain in the Ferguson Marine shipyard, but now he also has the job of getting Scotland to net zero carbon emissions PDQ as well as taking on the energy brief.

There was talk at some point in the not-too-distant past of the Scottish Government launching its own energy company, but Covid appears to have derailed that project. Expect it to return.

Mairi Gougeon is the newest face in Cabinet.

Well-liked among backbenchers – and not just those in the SNP – she has held junior posts of minister for rural affairs and the natural environment, before being catapulted into public health last year in the wake of the scandal of Scotland’s record drugs deaths numbers.

Now she’s in charge of rural affairs and islands, with responsibility for agriculture, food and drink policy, fisheries and aquaculture as well as cross-government coordination of policies for island communities. Someone less like Fergus Ewing to run this portfolio it would have been impossible to find.

The First Minister’s pal Ms Robison – who she let go from her Cabinet with a heavy heart in 2018 – is back, giving support and succour to Ms Sturgeon, as well as picking up social justice, housing and local government.

Her main tasks will be to meet the child poverty targets as as well as to deliver 100,000 affordable homes – and without doubt it’s an area where she will feel comfortable, even if the third sector will do its best to ensure she does not feel that way for long.

It is, however, the appointment of Mr Robertson straight to the Cabinet that will raise many eyebrows and indeed a few hackles among her party members and parliamentary group.

While Mr Robertson’s time in Westminster marks him out as an obvious Cabinet contender, a safe pair of hands when it comes to picking constitutional battles with the UK Government, and let’s not forget how loyal he has been to the First Minister, it is understood his lack of self-doubt has already infuriated a number of SNP MSPs – and the parliament has barely met.

Indeed even former Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh was moved to make a rather pointed joke about his talking too much during an MSP induction event.

So while the people pack has been reshuffled, many of the same cards have fallen back into place, reflecting perhaps the result of the election which has left the Parliament looking much the same as it did in 2016.

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