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20 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:17pm

Nicola Sturgeon has been lucky with her enemies – but trouble lies ahead

The First Minister’s biggest problem is that there is little appetite for a second Scottish referendum among voters or Westminster.

By Chris Deerin

Arrayed on the steps of Bute House on Wednesday, Nicola Sturgeon’s newly appointed Scottish cabinet kept the requisite two metres from one another. They looked like an unusual and slightly rash football formation.

A 1-2-6 or a 6-2-1? Is Sturgeon herself goalkeeper or point of attack, or (with the recent heroics of Liverpool’s Alisson Becker in mind) perhaps both? In any case, the social distancing belies the truth – this is a team of tightly bound allies, not rivals. In choosing the composition of her starting line-up, the First Minister has re-stamped her authority on her government and her wayward party.

This cabinet is small and, she hopes, perfectly formed. Fergus Ewing, the former secretary for rural economy, who has failed even to make the bench after 14 years as a minister, acknowledged somewhat grumpily in his letter of departure that Sturgeon had told him she wanted a “slimmed-down” operation. Ten cabinet secretaries rather than the previous 13, then, supported by 15 junior ministers. A rare case of a shrinking state.

Loyalty is at a premium with Sturgeon – and after the year she’s had, it’s hard to blame her. But this government of pals will only exacerbate tensions within the SNP over the First Minister’s controlling style of leadership. With her husband Peter Murrell continuing as chief executive of the SNP, despite his controversial role in the Alex Salmond affair, Sturgeon appears to have centralised power even further, even as the Yes movement fragments.

To little surprise, the job of Constitution and External Affairs minister has gone to Angus Robertson, the gifted and experienced if pleased-with-himself former Westminster SNP leader. It will be Robertson’s task to help his boss navigate the tricky path towards a second independence referendum, to manage (or perhaps erode) relations with the British government, and to build tolerance for the break-up of the UK around the world. In the election, Robertson captured Ruth Davidson’s old Edinburgh Central seat from the Tories – Sturgeon having changed the SNP’s internal rules to ensure her arch-nemesis Joanna Cherry couldn’t seek selection for the seat. He is on board in every way that counts and will be a powerful parliamentary presence.

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The main curiosity lies in her choices for the two big spending departments. Education, a constant source of trouble for the SNP, has a new hand at the tiller. John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy, has been moved from the brief to manage the Covid recovery, allowing his departure to be dressed up as a promotion when in fact his spell in charge of Scotland’s schools often verged on disaster. His replacement, Shirley-Anne Somerville, inherits a brewing scandal over this year’s exams and general disillusionment with her party’s handling of education.

The choice of the low-key Somerville, a former minister for higher education, hardly suggests a radical new direction in what is an area of notable underperformance. It was met with disappointment among reformers, who see her as a creature of the complacent establishment. “I have been trying to think of a single instance where she led innovation, or even promoted it, or deviated from the party line, or when minister for higher and further education consulted with anyone other than the Funding Council or the management of universities and colleges or the academic trade unions,” a senior educationalist told me. “I have failed.” “This suggests that Sturgeon is no longer even pretending that education is her top priority,” another said.

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[see also: How the debate over trans rights is splitting the SNP]

The health brief has been handed to Humza Yousaf, whose main achievement as cabinet secretary for justice was an illiberal Hate Crime Bill which was opposed not just by the opposition parties but by the police and various cultural groups too. It remains to be seen whether Yousaf has the gumption to build on the reforms that were forced on NHS management by the Covid crisis, or the intellectual finesse to deliver the promised National Care Service. As former Scottish Tory head of policy and strategy Gordon Hector put it this week, “the politics of creating a ‘national care service’ could become a one-dimensional arms race to show affection for care. But what will really change lives is the detail: how exactly will new structures work? What kind of relationship will providers have to government? What mechanisms will improve quality? These questions are far less political, but they are also the difference between changing stuff, or just inventing a shiny new organogram.” The smart money is on a shiny new organogram.  

More promising is an influx of youth and new faces into ministerial ranks. Kate Forbes, the impressive finance secretary, has had her brief expanded to include the broader economy and has been given three junior ministers, the most of any department. Mairi Gougeon, another young star, joins the cabinet as rural affairs secretary. In the junior ranks, there are jobs for rising talent such as Tom Arthur, Màiri McAllan and Ben MacPherson.

This is as secure a moment as Sturgeon is likely to have over the next five years. She has, once again, been lucky with her enemies, both internal and external. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and his Labour equivalent Anas Sarwar were both just a matter of months into their jobs when the Holyrood election came around, and had yet to make much impact on the collective psyche of the electorate. Neither should be underestimated as they now seek to cause trouble for the government.

Meanwhile a vengeful Alex Salmond has spun off into the new and wholly unsuccessful Alba Party, taking a healthy amount of the hardline indy malcontents and troublemakers with him. By doing so, then failing to secure a single MSP in the election, Salmond has helpfully drained the swamp for Sturgeon without, in the end, causing her any real political difficulties. She is once again the only show in town for those who want an independent Scotland, and they have little choice but to follow her lead.

That, of course, is where the First Minister’s biggest problem lies. It is not easy to map a course from here to a second referendum in this parliament. The voters are showing little appetite for one, Westminster seems dead against, and there is an awful lot to do first, in terms of managing the economic, health and educational recovery from Covid. As the pollster Mark Diffley pointed out at a Reform Scotland event this week, the Scottish electorate might largely have voted based on constitutional preference, but its priorities for a newly elected government are significantly more prosaic.

Still, Sturgeon has surrounded herself with friendly, pliable ministers, a slimmed-down, gender-balanced cabinet, and retains a healthy majority at Holyrood. For now she is top of the domestic league and aiming for her equivalent of a Champions League final. The downside of that is, of course, that failure is always blamed on the boss.

[see also: The rise and fall of Wings over Scotland]