Tom Peterkin: Reshuffle was long overdue – but when it came, it was dramatic

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Nicola Sturgeon’s reshuffle may have been a long time coming, but when it did come it was nothing if not dramatic, writes Tom Peterkin

Six ministers have gone and there is the possibility of more casualties tomorrow when the First Minister finalises her junior ministerial team.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney lead out the new look cabinet. Picture: PA

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney lead out the new look cabinet. Picture: PA

In the relatively brief history of devolution, one has to go back to Jack McConnell’s reshuffle of November 2001 to find one of comparable ferocity. Then, five senior and two junior ministers went in a reshuffle that earned the then Labour first minister the nickname “Jack the Knife”. Mr (now Lord) McConnell wielded the axe within hours of taking the top job. In contrast, it has taken Ms Sturgeon months, if not years, to carry out a similar exercise.

Yesterday’s reshuffle was long overdue. For many months now a somewhat tired-looking ministerial team had seemed to struggle to get a grip on domestic issues. In some ways that feeling of drift was typified yesterday with the Scottish Government having to deal with news on cancer waiting times and Education Secretary John Swinney shelving key education legislation.

As Ms Sturgeon’s right hand man, Mr Swinney was always going to be safe from yesterday’s blood-letting. The same was not true of her good friend, Health Secretary Shona Robison.

Ms Robison has been a lame duck struggling to swim against a tide of poor NHS performance indicators. As was clear from her resignation letter, Ms Robison has also had some very difficult personal issues to contend with. In those circumstances, it is perhaps easy to understand why she would want some time away from the pressure cooker environment of Cabinet politics.

Ms Sturgeon will be sad to see the departure of one of her oldest friends in politics. But the truth is a fresh face is desperately needed at what is always one of the trickiest portfolios for a government.

• READ MORE: Scottish Government Cabinet Reshuffle: Who’s in and Who’s out?

All sorts of spin can be spun about Keith Brown moving into an enhanced depute role with the SNP, but the reality is that Scotland’s economic growth is still lagging behind the rest of the UK. Mr Brown is a casualty of the decision to put his brief under Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s umbrella – a change that seems entirely sensible.

Angela Constance’s departure is perhaps not unexpected with her post going to former public health minister Aileen Campbell.

Of the promotions, Humza Yousaf faces a tough job as Justice Secretary. That is clear given the challenges that Michael Matheson has faced, having to get to grips with the dysfunctional nature of Police Scotland. Mr Yousaf has shown himself to be a politician of determination in his handling of the notoriously tricky transport brief – which now goes to Mr Matheson, who remains in the Cabinet.

Jeane Freeman, who in a previous life was a Labour adviser, has long been seen as a politician destined for the Cabinet. She has the unenviable task of taking over the health brief that always proves so difficult no matter who is in charge.

So far Ms Freeman has proved herself relatively sure-footed, aside from an episode last year when she was accused of making a clumsy attempt at smearing a nurse in a TV debate.

The return of Michael Russell is an indication of Brexit looming on the horizon, while Shirley Anne Somerville faces the intimidating task of setting up Scotland’s social security system.