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Few surprises dealt in post-election reshuffle

Cara McLean

Definitely more of a reshuffle than a real shake-up… Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced details of her new Cabinet and Ministers. With long-servers Richard Lochhead and Alex Neil standing down, Aileen McLeod losing her seat and Margaret Burgess and Marco Biagi not seeking re-election, some new faces were required but what we got was a minimalist refresh with no enforced demotions.

The headline news is that after nine years with the finance brief, John Swinney moves to Education – no less of a task, with top billing given to education just a safe pair of hands won’t be enough. Taking over from the much-maligned Angela Constance, he is challenged with closing the attainment gap, improving standing in international league tables, pacifying teaching unions and convincing of the benefits of national testing, among other things. As if that wasn’t enough, his brief also covers named person legislation. Ms Constance moves to Communities, Social Security & Equalities: A broad brief, encompassing themes from planning to welfare reform, no doubt commentators will be keeping a close eye on how she handles it.

With the exit of Richard Lochhead from rural affairs a significant gap emerged. In light of increasingly ambitious climate change targets (which let’s remember have been missed for four years running), proposed bills on circular economy, climate and fisheries, and continual grumblings related to CAP payments, dropping in an inexperienced hand was unlikely to cut it. The solution? A welcome expansion of the portfolio across two cabinet secretaries. Fergus Ewing takes on Rural Economy and Connectivity, with Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform being bumped up from a Ministerial post for Roseanna Cunningham. A move away from the energy brief for Mr Ewing was on the cards but his promotion may come as more of a surprise. While he may leave behind questions over fracking (which will now land in Keith Brown’s lap) he instead takes on immediate pressures with the agriculture brief.

Former Transport Minister Derek Mackay is promoted to Cabinet as Secretary for Finance & the Constitution, becoming a Chancellor of sorts in charge of the new tax powers (McChancellor..? Scrooge Mackay…?) He will work closely with former Infrastructure Secretary, Keith Brown who becomes Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs & Fair Work. The separation of Finance into two briefs has been flagged as a reflection of future priorities rather than any past failings but it is likely to be broadly welcomed.

With new legislation coming into force, eyebrows may well be raised by some at the decision to remove the post of Minister for Housing and Welfare, with responsibility for the former now part of the Local Government portfolio taken on by Kevin Stewart. It seems likely he'll be working closely with Angela Constance on planning matters.

Although an expected promotion for Humza Yousaf failed to materialise, his move from Minister from Europe & International Development to Transport & the Islands could be seen as a bumping up of sorts. With legislation anticipated on both islands and transport there should be plenty for him to get stuck into. It will be interesting to see how his reporting to no less than three Cabinet Secretaries plays out.

Though experienced hands largely stay in place, there are some new faces in there. Jeane Freeman, who flies straight into the Social Security Minister brief, is no stranger to Holyrood. Also into a ministerial role comes Shirley-Anne Somerville, fresh from taking back the Dunfermline seat from Labour, she lands responsibility for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, while Mark McDonald is rewarded with the Childcare and Early Years brief.

The First Minister has again appointed a gender balanced Cabinet. Lochhead and Neil are replaced by Mackay and Ewing while the women are unchanged from the previous session. Ministerial posts come out as 7:5 male to female, making the extended group of Cabinet and Ministers 45.5% female – this plays out against figures for SNP MSPs as 42.9% and for all MSPs at 41.9%. In terms of regional coverage, the South of Scotland is the only region not to have representation in the Cabinet, but has three ministers in post. Mid Scotland and Fife and North East Scotland are well covered with five MSPs from each region, while Derek Mackay goes solo for West of Scotland. A quick scan of biographies also points me to the conclusion that a degree from the University of Glasgow does no harm, with no less than half of the Government team having studied there.

With the Scottish Government team holding on to experienced members, impacts on membership and more importantly convenerships of committees will be something to look out for. Of the 63 SNP seats, 41 remain in the running (taking out the Cabinet and Ministers, but leaving DPOs). Of those, 15 are newly elected. In terms of previous Conveners, SNP is down five (four non-returned MSPs and Kevin Stewart now a Minister), leaving a number of Committee room doors open for those seeking a step up. 

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