Leader comment: Sturgeon's reshuffle must not be a cosmetic exercise
On what may well prove to be a momentous day in Scottish political history, Nicola Sturgeon yesterday reshaped her administration in an apparent attempt to achieve three main aims.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the Scottish public, the SNP has been losing ground to the Conservatives and Labour as they have launched attack after attack from right and left, in particular over the state of NHS, Scotland’s decidely lacklustre economy, education and the leadership trobules of Police Scotland.
By threatening to overwhelm the Scottish Government, such domestic problems have become a serious risk to the SNP’s reason for being – the cause of Scotish independence.
So yesterday there was a distinct air of wiping the slate clean. Out went Health Secretary Shona Robison, who finally succumbed to repeated calls for her resignation, while Justice Secretary Michael Matheson – also the subject of calls to quit – was shunted to transport.
This latter move will be seen as a demotion – although it may actually represent an elevation of the sector in the Government’s priorities – but the important point was to remove him from Justice and bring in a fresh face.
While their political opponents have made play of the paucity of talent in the SNP’s ranks, their replacements, Jeane Freeman and Humza Yousaf, are arguably the party’s rising stars. Whether they are actually more capable than Robison and Matheson is open to question. Although John Swinney remains in charge of Scottish education, his flagship Education Bill was shelved, removing another source of tension.
Perception is important in politics. The new appointments will enjoy a honeymoon period and, even if things go badly, any attacks from the opposition are likely to take time to fatally undermine their reputations.
So the reshuffle will give Sturgeon some breathing space on the domestic front, which appears to have been the first priority.
The promotion of Brexit minister Mike Russell to the Cabinet is the second telling decision. In the newly created post of Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, he will continue to deal with issues around the UK’s departure from the EU but clearly the SNP’s ‘guerrilla war’ against Westminster now requires a higher-ranking general. Thirdly, Keith Brown’s departure from Cabinet will see the SNP’s depute leader concentrate on building the case for independence as the party gears up to take advantage of any Brexit-related turmoil and hold a second referendum.
Essentially the reshuffle could be summed up as: dampen down criticism on the home front, ramp up the conflict with Theresa May, and get ready to go to the polls for whatever reason. The challenge for the opposition will be the maintain their attacks and try to make the multiple honeymoons as short as possible. Ousting the SNP from power would scupper hopes for independence for years.
All of this may be good politics, but that doesn’t necessarily make for good goverment. Scots are looking for solutions to real problems with those affecting the NHS chief among them. Its woes may not have been solved by Robison, but she did not create them and Freeman will face the same crisis. Without a stronger economy, there is a limit to how much can be spent so she may need to be imaginative to find solutions.
Team Sturgeon has been assembled but, for the sake of the nation, we can only hope this is more than a cosmetic exercise.