Changing the Cabinet has not gone according to plan for the First Minister, writes Ian Swanson.
IT was meant to be an upbeat note on which to end the parliamentary term – rising stars rewarded with the prize of office and long-serving colleagues paid fulsome tribute as they stepped down. Everyone could go off in good spirits – new ministers with the full summer recess to read up on their new remits and those no longer in government able to enjoy the fine weather relieved of the burdens of office.
But Nicola Sturgeon’s reshuffle – the most extensive since the advent of devolution – went horribly wrong when old blogs penned by Gillian Martin, just announced as new further and higher education minister surfaced.
Ms Martin’s musings as a college lecturer in 2007, ridiculing equal opportunities policies with references to “hairy-knuckled, lipstick-wearing, transitional transgender Laydees”, were horrific.
Labour said it was not only her judgment that was called into question but also that of the First Minister for appointing her.
At least some of Ms Martin’s comments have been in the public domain since the 2016 Holyrood election campaign and there has been astonishment that more thorough checks were not carried out before her appointment was announced.
No replacement can now be officially confirmed before MSPs return in September, meaning the embarrassing debacle will now linger until then. It should also not be forgotten that the reshuffle was originally used as an opportunity to bury the bad news of an embarrassing U-turn on what was meant to be the Scottish Government’s flagship legislation, a sweeping reform of education.
As Ms Sturgeon saw her ministers at Bute House, Education Secretary John Swinney told parliament he was no longer going to put forward the Bill previously hailed as the biggest shake-up of Scottish education in a decade. Instead he said he had reached agreement with councils to take forward key aspects of the reforms without the need for legislation.
The reshuffle included some appointments which have been generally welcomed – especially that of Jeane Freeman as Health Secretary. She has won plaudits for her role overseeing the setting up of the new devolved social security powers, though arguably it would have been good if she had been allowed to see it through to completion. Michael Russell, a key figure in the early days of the SNP Government and then brought back to handle Brexit, is given a welcome return to Cabinet with responsibility not only for Brexit, but also the constitution.
There were also posts for some of the MSPs first elected in 2016, including Edinburgh Northern & Leith MSP Ben Macpherson, now minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, and Edinburgh Eastern’s Ash Denham, now minister for Community Safety.
However, the sacking of Keith Brown as Economy Secretary was more of a surprise. Mr Brown has just been elected SNP deputy leader but he had made it clear he felt able to do both jobs. Indeed, it is now said he was at risk of being axed by Ms Sturgeon a year ago and some claim his decision to go for the deputy role was partly to save his Cabinet place. If that was the plan, it spectacularly failed.
Both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Brown have had an unwelcome reminder that the best laid schemes gang aft agley.