Friday, 7 September 2012

A Tale of two reshuffles: Part 2 – Much ado about nothing

It might have escaped the notice of some of my English friends, but after the screening of Cameron’s 18-rated horror on Tuesday fellow film director Alex Salmond decided to make some adjustments to his cast too.

“Nightmare on Downing Street” followed by “Independence Day” might sound like an entertaining evening’s viewing but in reality both reshuffles tell us very significant things about the Prime Minister and First Minister respectively.  The first instalment of drama made it quite clear that David Cameron is insecure, fearful of his own party’s right wing but lacking the courage to take it on.  It also provided evidence that he has all but given up on the positive rhetoric of coalition and that he’s parted company with his senses of reason and proportion, promoting the most undeserving to the top positions and abandoning the centre-ground of UK politics in advance of the 2015 General Election.

So what, if anything, did the Scottish reshuffle (or should that be scuffle?) tell us about Alex Salmond? 

There can be no doubt that the key announcement is that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be moved from health to infrastructure and capital spending, with specific responsibility for directing the SNP government’s referendum strategy.  On some levels, this makes perfect sense: who can be trusted to spearhead this than the Deputy First Minister herself?  However, this also raises questions about Sturgeon’s political future as well as the wisdom of a straight swap which sees Alex Neil take on the health portfolio.

Sturgeon has been a pretty decent deputy for Salmond for the previous five years.  In my view, she’s also been an effective health minister for that time – taking well to her responsibilities and forging positive relationships with professionals and interest groups.  Unlike many health ministers, both in Holyrood and Westminster, she seems to know what she’s talking about and has been successful in projecting herself as someone who cares.  Moving her away from a sensitive role she has managed with care and no small degree of skill is therefore potentially risky.  Alex Neil is certainly capable, but I’m not necessarily convinced he is a “natural” health minister in the way that Nicola was.  It’s understandable that opposition parties have complained that this reshuffle has been too centred on the referendum rather than the needs of Scotland, especially when the health ministry sacrifices such an able incumbent.  It’s certainly an experiment that may or may not work for the SNP: will Neil be able to command the same respect as his predecessor, or have the same positive working relationships with key personnel? 

I’d have preferred for Sturgeon to have stayed where she was, simply on the basis that what she’s doing is working reasonably well.  This is in no small part down to her personal qualities: what impressed me most about her was the attention to detail she showed towards the kind of issues that people working in the health service actually care about.  I’m also of the view, as is Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, that having handled the equal marriage matter so well to date it is regrettable that Sturgeon is now to be denied the opportunity to “pilot the bill through Parliament”.  While I’m not suggesting the SNP is anything but committed to marriage equality, as a passionate advocate of equality I would have been far more confident of the right outcome if the matter was still being managed directly by the Deputy First Minister.

Clearly being handed responsibility for the referendum campaign speaks volumes about how Alex Salmond views his deputy.  There can be no doubting that she is his preferred successor.  However, the move also increases the pressure on Sturgeon to deliver the right result for the SNP.  Should the “Yes” campaign (and therefore, by implication, also the SNP) fail in its quest to secure Scottish independence it is certainly possible that Sturgeon’s responsibility for the result will come under close scrutiny.  That is not to suggest for a minute that I believe either Salmond or Sturgeon’s political careers will be necessarily ruined should the electorate reject independence, but there are certainly risks.  That said, should the voters back independence it would be in all likelihood, and possibly rightly, be attributed in no small part to Sturgeon’s oversight – and will carry obvious long-term political implications. 

Looking at other personnel changes, I was pleased to see that Humza Yousaf now finds a place in government.  I have been enormously impressed with his style and political maturity to date, as have many other Liberal Democrats.  He has such enormous potential that it was for me something of a surprise that he was only given the opportunity to prove himself at external affairs and international development.  While it is never good to see someone like Bruce Crawford leaving government (resigning after the loss of both parents), I cautiously welcome the appointment of Joe Fitzpatrick as Minister for Parliamentary business and not merely because he’s openly gay (although that does say a great deal about the nature of the SNP government).  He’s highly confident and by Holyrood standards quite experienced, so it was right of Salmond to take a chance on him and see if he can fulfil his obvious potential in a ministerial role. 

Elsewhere Stewart Stevenson leaves to be replaced by Paul Wheelhouse as minister for environment and climate change.  This seems a sound move. I’ve never been convinced by Stevenson, although I wasn’t one of those who felt he should have resigned as transport minister.  I’ve never thought that he’s particularly got to grips with his brief, or that he even enjoys it.  Given the SNP government’s proclaimed green agenda and focus on renewables, Stevenson has lacked the insight to outline a cogent and coherent strategy to facilitate the government’s ambitions to tackle climate change.  Paul Wheelhouse is someone I know little about in honesty but I commend the First Minister giving him the opportunity to prove himself and hopefully work a little differently to his predecessor.

Keith Brown was moved to transport and veterans, with Margaret Burgess taking over at housing.  And that, in a nutshell, is that.  For all the hype surrounding the reshuffle, very few post changed hands.  The main personnel are still in place – Swinney, Russell, McAskill, Hyslop, Ewing, Mackay, Cunningham.  I might have considered moving Fiona Hyslop, who always seems to me like a weak link in an otherwise strong ministerial chain, but Salmond clearly realises the need not to overly unsettle his team.

The main difference between Cameron’s reshuffle and that of Salmond is that the Prime Minister’s has been more concerned with appeasing his party’s right-wing while the First Minister has recognised the importance of ensuring that the right people are in the right jobs.  He understands that no business undergoes significant overhauls of its leading personnel simply to please the media or the public and therefore neither should a party of government.  He’s opted for continuity where possible.  He’s also been able to create a more diverse cabinet, including the likes of Yousaf and Fitzpatrick, and a good number of women – in stark contrast to Cameron.

All in all, this reshuffle was much ado about nothing – or at least much ado about very little.  I’m not overly impressed with Nicola Sturgeon leaving health and have concerns with Alex Neil’s ability to perform to the level she did.  I’m not entirely convinced that it should be the Deputy First Minister overseeing the referendum campaign but it does make sense to a point.  Other than Sturgeon, I could have seen Derek Mackay or perhaps Mike Russell taking on that responsibility, but whether they would be able to balance this with other ministerial duties is another question. 

Finally, I’ll address the criticism from opposition parties that the reshuffle was about independence.  Well, of course it was – to a point (Bruce Crawford’s departure also necessitated changes).  The referendum is going to happen, and it would be ridiculous for the party of government proposing it not to assign responsibility to someone to oversee its progression and the party campaign championing the SNP’s preferred option.  That’s not an unreasonable thing to do.  Whether this new appointment merited removing a highly capable health minister from a department that will surely be the poorer for her absence is something I would question, but I wouldn’t be quick to condemn a “reshuffle” that saw the vast majority of cabinet faces staying put.  As for the accusation that the SNP government is obsessed with independence, I would suggest that Johann Lamont not only suffers from the same affliction but has no insight into her own condition. It seems to be all she wishes to talk about.  

All in all, I didn’t see too much to get excited about.  In a sense, it was an example in how to undertake a reshuffle responsibly.  In spite of all the media hype, very little of substance has changed.  It might have lacked the drama of “Nightmare on Downing Street”, but Scotland is all the better for it.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I pretty much agree with everything you said there, which makes any kind of discussion a bit of a damp squib.

I too, think Nicola made an excellent Health Secretary. I rate Alex Neil, but like you I wonder if he will fill Nicola's shoes. That said... she is a hard act to follow.

I think relationships with the professionals in the NHS may suffer, and that is not a good thing. I bet though that both Alexes will be aware of the potential for criticism and be working to minimise it.

Like you I find it reasonable that the Deputy First Minister should be the one to take the independence debate forward, and be responsible for the referendum, and negotiations with London, given its importance to her party.

It's brave rather than safe for Nicola, but I've always thought that she was driven by her ideals rather than by her career prospects.

I think too that her not guiding the Equal Marriage legislation is a loss, but within parliament it seems that there will be cross party support, so perhaps that will not be such a tough job. Out with parliament, the negotiations with the Catholic Church is now being conducted at a relatively lowly level, which would surely preclude the involvement of the DFM.

Like you I'm pleased to see Humza Yousaf elevated to ministerial role, albeit a junior one. He is only 26, so there is time for a leisurely rise through the ranks until one day he may be our First Minister.

Joe is a friend of mine and I'm delighted to see his talents realised.

As for the London reshuffle, I’m glad to say that a number of the positions that have been filled with the most inappropriate people are those which will have little or no effect in Scotland, being England or England and Wales departments.

I’m intrigued (and not a little worried) to know how Grayling will cope at Justice with being responsible for the MoJ tribunals which hear, and overturn, so many of the cases arising from his persecution of sick people. Unfortunately this is a part of his job which does extend into Scotland

An Duine Gruamach said...

While I agree that Sturgeon will be missed in Health, her move is a good one tactically for the SNP. Independence is their goal, so it's only natural that they want their best people working on it - and Sturgeon is without a doubt one of the SNP's best people. And, of course, it shows the SNP are taking seriously the fact that women are less likely than men to vote Yes. I can't think of many folk better than Nicola Sturgeon to be working on that.

Of course, she had a meeting with David Mundell on her first day in the new job - not what I would call a fair fight as far as a battle of wits is concerned!

cynicalHighlander said...

An Duine Gruamach

Of course, she had a meeting with David Mundell on her first day in the new job - not what I would call a fair fight as far as a battle of wits is concerned!

He'll have 20 or so mandarins to even things up a bit. :LoL:

Can't fault your usual integrity in writing how it is Andrew it's a pity the MSM are unable to do the same.

Anonymous said...

A good read.

As shuffles go it seems like a pretty safe and wise one. Minor concerns, but more the usual nerves or a new leader at a post, rather than dread from a proven failure or unsuitable selection. I think Equal Marriage is in safe hands (already know a few people who have been buoyed up by its progress and are keenly watching, this will help a great deal now and in the future) and on a steady course to port, which is why it was considered safe enough to change hands with that one, as should the health service, we'd hope. I get the feeling a close eye will be kept on everything to see if there are teething troubles, but caution and wisdom would be at the back of everyone's minds in government and reckless endangerment of these policies would be unlikely to be on the cards.

It'd be nice to see articles like this published more in the media - online or print.