THEY’RE changing the guard at Bute House. Alex Salmond’s departure after seven years as First Minister opened the door to the historic appointment of Nicola Sturgeon as the first female to take on the job.
Ms Sturgeon was being officially sworn in at the Court of Session this morning following her formal election to the post by MSPs yesterday.
There is, of course, a strong element of continuity in this succession. Ms Sturgeon has been Deputy First Minister all the time Mr Salmond has been in power.
But she will nevertheless want to put her own mark on the government and is expected to carry out an early reshuffle of ministers.
Insiders say the Cabinet changes could be extensive, with some of the “old guard” first in line in any cull. Justice Secretary and Edinburgh Eastern MSP Kenny MacAskill is tipped to go. Education Secretary Mike Russell may also be out.
“It’s not because they’ve done anything wrong,” says a senior source. “It is just to create space for others to be brought in.”
Linlithgow MSP Fiona Hyslop, the Culture and External Affairs Secretary, is also a long-standing member of the Cabinet, but is unlikely to go, not least because the government needs to live up to the target of 40 per cent women in top positions which it has set for other bodies.
Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead is expected to stay in his post. Sports Secretary Shona Robison, a close ally of Ms Sturgeon’s is almost certain to get a key job. Other important roles are likely to be found for the two defeated deputy leadership candidates, Almond Valley MSP Angela Constance and Transport Minister Keith Brown.
However, Stewart Hosie’s unexpected victory in that contest also left another post to be filled – Deputy First Minister. Since Mr Hosie is at Westminster, he cannot step into Ms Sturgeon’s old job at Holyrood.
Instead, the speculation is that the title will be handed to Finance Secretary John Swinney, a senior figure who is widely respected on all sides.
One senior SNP insider says the surprise win by Mr Hosie – seen as “the most centrist” candidate – gives the lie to the idea that the new members who have flooded into the SNP since the referendum are all left-wingers seeking to take over the party.
Others pointed to the relatively low turnout in the deputy leadership election – just 55 per cent – as suggesting at least some new members did not feel they knew the contenders well enough to choose between them.
Ms Sturgeon has already used her conference speech last weekend to set out some of her priorities for government.
After seven years as number two and with a comfortable SNP lead in the opinion polls, she starts from a strong position.
She will no doubt want to prove she is “her own woman” and not forever working in Mr Salmond’s shadow. He is likely to help her by taking himself off to Westminster at next year’s general election. But there is one aspect of government where she might decide it is a good idea to follow his lead. There was a remarkable stability in Mr Salmond’s Cabinet and very little of the “musical chairs” associated with so many UK governments and some previous Scottish ones. He made changes only when he had to, allowing his ministers to become experts in their portfolios.
Whoever gets which jobs in the next few days, Ms Sturgeon might do well to stick with them for a while.