Back in 2016, she appointed 13 Cabinet secretaries to join her in government, plus 15 junior ministers and a couple of law officers thrown in for good measure. Five years on however and it’s expected that she will reduce the senior minister numbers to just eight, as the election saw many experienced SNP MSPs retire from frontline politics, though there could be an expansion among the junior positions.
Four Cabinet secretaries including Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, Constitution Secretary, Mike Russell, and Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell, have all stood down, and while the SNP has returned 64 MSPs, many are either completely new to Holyrood or have never had even a sniff of a ministerial portfolio.
Gender balance will also be an issue for the First Minister, and retaining that could reduce her reshuffle options.
Filling Mike Russell’s shoes will be the biggest challenge given the focus which will be placed on securing a second independence referendum by halfway through the parliamentary term as the SNP said it would in its manifesto. The role is most likely to go to loyalist Angus Robertson – former leader of the SNP group in Westminster and already being suggested as a potential future SNP leader – after he secured his place in Holyrood winning the Edinburgh Central seat from the Conservatives.
He would be able to bring his Westminster experience to bear on the fraught discussions ahead, and leave Nicola Sturgeon free to deal with the pandemic.
Jeane Freeman’s retiral has left a hole in health, one that will need to be filled rapidly to deal with the ongoing impact of Covid. Noises suggest that Kate Forbes – another tipped, by Nicola Sturgeon no less as a potential future leader – could be given the role to “humanise” her. A very astute young politician she stepped into the finance role at a moment’s notice to deliver a budget after shamed former MSP Derek Mackay left in a hurry, and is roundly thought to have handled the brief with aplomb. Taking on the health brief would allow her to run a major Cabinet office and almost literally follow in the footsteps of Ms Sturgeon.
One party source said: “Kate has shown her competence but she needs to have a brief that has a bigger direct impact on people’s lives if she really is to progress and the NHS is the biggest opportunity she will have in showing a different, more human side of herself, rather than hiding among numbers.”
If she is moved, John Swinney could find himself shuffled back into his comfort zone of finance – with the Economy (including rural economy) and Fair Work also added back to that role, as well as remaining Nicola Sturgeon’s depute FM.
It’s been widely accepted that he has not handled the education brief well, and indeed has faced two votes of no confidence in parliament. With a reportedly problematic OECD report into Scotland’s education to be published shortly and a row over this year’s qualification results dead ahead, it could well fall to someone else less tainted by last year’s debacle.
A suggestion that former teacher Jenny Gilruth could be catapulted into the education brief is not being completely dismissed by party insiders, however she is known to want to stay in her junior ministerial role in international development and migration. Similarly Maree Todd as Children’s Minister still has to see her plans to expand childcare reach fruition. Education then could fall to Shirley-Anne Somerville who previously held a junior ministerial role in further and higher education and who may well want out of her social security and equalities brief as she has not enjoyed handling the row around proposed changes to the Gender Reform Act.
However, as an SNP insider pointed out “John won’t want to leave education feeling the job is not finished. He feels the weight of responsibility of the role, especially the promise to close the attainment gap, and he may well not want to leave.”
If Mr Swinney does refuse to budge, the finance and economy role could fall to Humza Yousaf, another MSP looked upon by Nicola Sturgeon as a potential successor. Currently Justice Secretary, he successfully steered the Hate Crime Bill through Holyrood, and has also held the transport brief in the past, but she may well want to test him further.
That could also be done by making him front the environment and climate crisis brief, another hugely significant role in the year of COP26, and one which could also take in transport and tourism for a more cohesive approach.
Both Fiona Hyslop and Fergus Ewing will expect to remain in the Cabinet but the latter may not get his way. Indeed some party sources say that Ms Sturgeon may prefer to have more women than men in her next Cabinet. That could mean Ms Hyslop taking on the justice role while Shirley-Anne Somerville, if not moved to education, being awarded the communities brief, including local government, to add to her social security responsibilities. Though the junior ministerial role of equalities and older people would likely remain with Christina McKelvie.
Even more left-field, some in the party suggest that Ms Somerville may end up moved back to a junior post, with Shona Robison brought back into Cabinet, to take on the Communities brief.
Back in 2016 it took a month after Nicola Sturgeon was appointed First Minister for her Cabinet to be reshuffled, this time round with a pandemic to deal with – and a referendum to demand – it’s far more likely the appointments will be made much more quickly.