McConnell’s team game

IT HAS been almost 100 days since Jack McConnell took over from Henry McLeish, but it is only now that the shape of "Team McConnell" is becoming clear.

The most persistent criticism of the new First Minister has been that he has assumed a presidential - rather than a prime ministerial - style of government.

This implies that Mr McConnell dominates all decisions, dictating what his ministers should do while dispensing with the consensual approach which is supposed to characterise Cabinet government.

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While elements of this are undoubtedly true, it is too blunt and simplistic a model to explain what is really happening inside his administration.

Mr McConnell has an inner circle of allies whom he trusts implicitly and relies on - three special advisers, Mike Donnelly, Jeanne Freeman and Rachel McEwan, and one minister, Andy Kerr.

There is then an outer circle of supportive lieutenants, a second division of people Mr McConnell will turn to frequently. This includes Patricia Ferguson, his chief whip, Eastwood MP Jim Murphy and his special advisers, Peter Hastie and Adrian Colwell.

There is also a third division of allies, people Mr McConnell has known and liked for some time and who can be relied on for sensible advice, but are either too busy to help out all the time, or are slightly too independent-minded to be unstintingly loyal all the time.

In this group are Lord Watson, the tourism minister, Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman, Peter Hain, the Europe minister, John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Labour MP Frank Roy, as well as back-bench MSPs Ken McIntosh and Frank McAveety.

However, it is the inner circle that wields by far the most influence and is largely responsible for setting the McConnell agenda.

Mr McConnell has known Mike Donnelly for many years; their relationship goes back to Stirling where both led the council at different times. One of Mr McConnell’s first moves was to bring Dr Donnelly from Paisley University into the Scottish executive as his policy adviser.

His second move was to poach Jeanne Freeman from the education department and bring her into the First Minister’s office.

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Mr McConnell became increasingly reliant on Ms Freeman as a policy guide and as a speechwriter when he was education minister. She is understood to act as the First Minister’s "gatekeeper", looking after public service policy and keeping a close eye on the civil service.

Rachel McEwan is a party figure who stays in the background. She keeps Mr McConnell informed about what is going on in the Labour Party and gives a political edge to the advice he receives.

Andy Kerr is Mr McConnell’s finance minister and his right-hand man in government. Mr Kerr is fiercely loyal and the only minister to have the ear of the First Minister at any time of the day or night.

However, what is most interesting about the various levels of the real "Team McConnell" is the almost total absence of other Scottish ministers.

Apart from Mr Kerr and, to a lesser extent, Ms Ferguson and Lord Watson, Mr McConnell relies more on backroom advisers and close friends in Westminster than he does on his own Cabinet.

It is this, more than anything else, that has led to the claims that the First Minister has adopted a presidential approach to government.

But a source close to Mr McConnell insisted that the First Minister was "bringing ministers on" and trusting them more and more as they grow into their jobs.

So while Mr McConnell’s approach to government is certainly more presidential than either of his predecessors, the First Minister does not govern in glorious isolation.

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He relies heavily on a large number of people, some civil servants, some at Westminster and some he has known for many years outside mainstream politics, to decide where to take the Scottish executive.

However, it is impossible to get a clear picture of "Team McConnell" without studying who is out, as well as who is in.

Mr McConnell’s first, and most decisive, political act was to sack half of Mr McLeish’s Cabinet.

Angus MacKay, Jackie Baillie, Sarah Boyack, Tom McCabe and Susan Deacon were all ousted in a purge of Mr McLeish’s allies.

The widely-held belief was that, in a parliament as small as Holyrood, it was a mistake to create such a powerful band of malcontents on the back-benches.

But, in the three months since the Cabinet purge, there has hardly been a murmur of dissent, in public or in private, from the ex-ministers.

That is, however, until now.

The five former ministers decided to keep their heads down for a couple of months to prevent them earning a reputation merely as spoilers on the back-benches, but now they have started to speak out on occasional and particular issues, and this weekend’s Scottish Labour Conference will see the first manifestations of this new approach.

Both Mr MacKay and Ms Deacon will address fringe meetings to criticise the way Mr McConnell has approached key tasks, and while the others have not spoken out yet, they may do so in the near future.

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So while Mr McConnell appeared to survive his "night of the long knives" without a scratch, there are now signs that the enemies he put on the back-benches may prove a more serious and long-term problem for him than was first thought.

When he decided that "Team McConnell" would consist of his friends and allies and nobody else, Mr McConnell provided himself with a close and loyal circle to trust.

But he also created a potential government-in-waiting, which could prove to be more damaging than the opposition in the long run.

The key policies: a competent if uninspiring start


Rhetoric: One of Jack McConnell’s first pronouncements was to include transport in his top five priorities. This marked a definite shift away from the McLeish administration.

The aim appeared to be to win over the business community which had long complained that the parlous state of Scotland’s transport system was hindering business development.

But Mr McConnell failed to give transport its own dedicated Cabinet minister; instead, he lumped it together with enterprise and lifelong learning and gave it all to Wendy Alexander.

Practice: Rather than spending time pursuing a complex, long-term strategy for Scotland’s transport system ten or 15 years in advance, Ms Alexander has shown much more willing to chase big, short-term projects which could make some difference in the next few years.

Verdict: A shift in emphasis with a few major projects now looking likely for the first time. But Scotland’s main rail and road links are in an appalling state with little prospect of improvements arriving soon.


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Rhetoric: Jack McConnell identified education as one of his top priorities very early on in his tenure as First Minister

As a former teacher and a former education minister, he knew the problems and issues better than anyone else in the executive.

But, having just presided over what he terms a year of radical and far-reaching change in Scottish education, he has decided to let the changes bed down before doing anything else.

Practice: Mr McConnell’s knowledge of education and new minister Cathy Jamieson’s relative inexperience, coupled with the fact that she is not even responsible for schools, have fuelled speculation that the First Minister retains the real, behind-the-scenes responsibility for education.

He inspired fierce loyalty from the civil servants in the education department when he was the minister last year, a worrying sign for modernisers, and is known to be in close contact with everything that is going on in this area.

However, having pushed through so many major changes as education minister, Mr McConnell appears content to oversee what he calls a period of stability.

Verdict: A major disappointment. Mr McConnell has not promised to change very much and has done exactly that. Standards in schools in the country’s poorest areas remain a disgrace. Radical change is required.


Rhetoric: Jack McConnell and his health minister Malcolm Chisholm have insisted in public that they are pursuing the same new Labour agenda as the Westminster government.

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However, in one crucial area, they have taken a different approach to Westminster - elderly care.

Mr McConnell and Mr Chisholm have both promised to carry through the expensive plans to cover the care costs of every elderly person in Scotland by July this year.

Mr McConnell also ordered an independent review of waiting list figures in Scotland .

Practice: Behind closed doors, Mr McConnell’s approach to health bears little resemblance to the confident public rhetoric.

One of Mr McConnell’s first moves was to cast doubt on the executive’s ability to deliver free care for the elderly.

He apparently wanted to water down the executive’s commitment but was forced to abandon these plans in the face of strong opposition by other members of the Cabinet, led by the Liberal Democrats.

The issue of private sector involvement in the health service, has also caused much more trouble than appeared in public.

Verdict: Some change from his predecessor. A few signs that he will factor private provision into changing the health system. But he needs to be more ambitious. Should also have ditched the costly Sutherland plan.


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Rhetoric: Under Jack McConnell’s leadership, the executive has changed tack on job creation.

The First Minister has rejected the policy, pursued vigorously by his predecessor, to attract major foreign companies to set up factories in Scotland. Instead, he says he is supporting indigenous business, particularly in the hi-tech sector.

Practice: Mr McConnell has deliberately set about to change major McLeish initiatives and is spinning that the era of reliance on inward investment is over.

Critics have suggested that one of the reasons why the Scottish executive has dropped its pursuit of inward investors is because it was so closely associated with the McLeish administration.

Verdict: Major U-turn in policy. Scotland’s low-growth problems continue, and it remains to be seen what plans Mr McConnell has to help change that.

EURO 2008

Rhetoric: Jack McConnell insisted when he took over as First Minister that he wanted to see Scotland secure the European football championships in 2008 but he would examine the proposals in detail before making a decision on whether to back a Scottish bid.

But, in a significant development, he also opened up the possibility of a joint bid with Ireland.

This was in marked contrast to Henry McLeish who was a passionate advocate of a Scotland-only bid and promised to throw the executive’s weight - and financial muscle - behind it with no qualifications. Mr McConnell refused to back a Scottish-only bid, insisting that he would only give the executive’s backing to a joint bid with Ireland.

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Practice: It became clear to ministerial advisers very early on that Mr McConnell did not share his predecessor's backing for a Euro 2008 bid.

Mr McConnell asked his advisers to examine the figures and delayed a final decision, despite increasing warnings from the media and the opposition that the delay was damaging the bid’s chances of success.

He met the Scottish Football Association and the bid team in person, but by that time the decision had been made and they were told the executive would not support a Scottish-only attempt.

Mr McConnell was cautious because he was worried about being accused of wasting taxpayers’ money, particularly if stadiums were built for the championships only to be left half-empty and virtually useless afterwards.

He wanted to share the cost, and the risk, with Ireland but he was undoubtedly also guided by an aversion to projects which were associated with his predecessor.

Verdict: Major U-turn. Mr McConnell dropped the clear commitment given by Mr McLeish to a Scotland-only bid for the Euro 2008 championships, backing a joint bid which the experts believe has less chance of success.