Humiliation over Gillian Martin aside, Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet reshuffle will bolster her power

Compared to the shambles in Westminster, the SNP government is a hive of industriousness. But to stay in power, it cannot afford any complacency.

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In truth, it’s harder to name a reshuffle that came off as planned than to identify the ones that went wrong. When Theresa May attempted to test her damaged authority by shaking up her cabinet at the start of this year, Justine Greening quit rather than move from education to another department and Chris Grayling was named as Tory chairman before, an hour later, it was announced that in fact Brandon Lewis had been appointed. Tony Blair usually found himself in hot water too – in 2003 he got it in the neck for abolishing the centuries-old office of lord chancellor and for putting John Reid, a Scottish MP, in charge of the English NHS. In 2001, he came close to moving Gordon Brown from the Treasury but chickened out at the last moment.

So Nicola Sturgeon finds herself in good company this week as she takes enemy fire over her first reshuffle as First Minister. It was – her political rivals said, as political rivals do – a “complete humiliation” that called into question the First Minister’s judgment. It was certainly an eventful day. Three senior cabinet ministers either stood down or were removed: Keith Brown, the SNP’s new deputy leader, left the post of economy secretary, Angela Constance was out at communities, and Shona Robison stood down from the health brief – citing a turbulent personal year.

But it was a more junior part of government that caused the most trouble. Shortly after the appointment was announced of Gillian Martin as further and higher education minister it was promptly de-announced when revelations emerged of offensive comments she had made on a blog prior to entering politics. Martin had managed to insult Jews, African Americans, disabled people, and transgender people, whom she described as “hairy-knuckled lipstick-wearing transitional transgender Laydees”.

The cock-up sees the First Minister and her government limp rather than skip into the long summer recess. That’s a shame, because the broader reshuffle included some smart choices. The universally rated Jeane Freeman has taken over at Health, which in the coming years faces immense challenges around budgets, an ageing and shrinking population, and Scotland’s specific obesity and alcohol problems.

The impressive Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, whose first budget late last year was something of a political masterpiece, sees his empire expand to include a group of ministers covering the areas of business, public finance and the digital economy, and trade, investment and innovation. Scotland has problems with economic growth, business investment, adapting to automation and digitisation, and the consequences of Brexit, so the First Minister has in effect created a unit to come up with answers. That unit includes 28-year-old MSP Kate Forbes, a rising star for whom this is likely to be the first step on a march through the big jobs.

Forbes was only one of the younger members of the 2016 intake to be promoted. Mairi Gougeon, 33, is now minister for Rural Affairs and the Environment, while 34-year-old Ben Macpherson is covering Europe, Migration and International Development.

The SNP knows that after 11 years in government – by the time of the next devolved election it will be 14 years – it needs to display the capacity to regenerate itself. The surge in membership that came with the 2014 independence referendum has brought in a lot of fresh political talent, and Sturgeon will hope that the drafting of some of it into government can inject new energy.

Despite the short-term row over Gillian Martin, Sturgeon will also go into the recess in good heart. The polls show she is on course to win another term in 2021: Labour is struggling to find an angle that will re-establish it as the unchallenged home of the Scottish left and bring it back to national relevance; and Ruth Davidson, her talented main rival, is chained to a Westminster party that is badly split on Brexit and risks growing ever more toxic north of the border over the tumultuous next few years.

There is also a seriousness of purpose about this administration that was evident in its most recent programme for government. The creation of a National Investment Bank, a National Manufacturing Institute, a state energy company, and the piloting of universal basic income schemes are a welcome placing of some longer-term bets. Scotland needs a government that is willing to try things, to take risks, and to sometimes fail. The nation needs to embrace a climate that is comfortable with this approach, and a politics that is more than a shouting match. The caution that drove Holyrood’s first 20 years has not served the nation well.

This is not to suggest Sturgeon is without flaws. She appears to have a pathological aversion to confronting vested interests in the education and health sectors, which makes truly meaningful reform either unachievable or a long and laborious process. The Nats seems determined to keep power centralised at Holyrood (and preferably in Bute House), while Scotland’s cities and regions are crying out for significant devolution of power. There will always be a suspicion that she and her colleagues are manipulating every situation to advance the case for independence.

But the First Minister is undeniably getting stuff done in the here and now. Her government is a hive of industriousness compared to the shambles down south. And with Davidson holding her feet to the fire she knows she can’t afford any complacency. Those new ministers are likely to have a busy summer.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).