10 February 2009

The Reshuffle

Well, the pack has been re-shuffled, but not by much: only a handful of real changes. What this means is that a re-shuffle of the Cabinet Secretaries probably won't come for a year or so, if at all, unless absolutely necessary.

As we know, Culture, External Affairs and Europe Minister Linda Fabiani is out, and Environment Minister Mike Russell becomes Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution. Now, this move initially surprised me: I assumed that Russell would be promoted at some point, but not to this post as it arguably forestalls the promotion to full Cabinet Secretary rank that I expected. But it makes sense: on Constitutional matters, when Nicola Sturgeon is wearing her Deputy First Ministerial hat, guess who has her back. Yup, it's Mike Russell. And he's seen as a key fixer in the Party. This is a move for the Referendum, plain and simple, and the change in title goes to show that. Sadly, what it also shows is that Culture is the odd man out in this portfolio: it was this part - and not the External Affairs part - that felled Fabiani as the then Minister managed to lose the Creative Scotland Bill. Now, you don't expect minority governments to get every piece of legislation on the statute books, and as we know, John Swinney lost a piece of legislation a couple of weeks ago, with no threat to his position. However, the fundamental difference between the two is that opposition MSPs had clear criticisms of the Budget, while everyone agreed on the Creative Scotland Bill, but Linda Fabiani crashed and burned in the Chamber, as she got mixed up over the body's funding. But you'd expect her to find it tough: her bag was External Affairs, not Culture. That aspect of the portfolio seems something of an outlier and in the absence of an old "Tourism, Culture & Sport" type department (as the last administration had, in fairness to it), these matters would probably be best handled by Education. Nevertheless, Culture is where it is, and Mike Russell is in charge of it.

His replacement as Minister for the Environment is Roseanna Cunningham. The influence of this one-time firebrand has waned somewhat of late, and I was surprised by her inclusion: I imagined that a Committee Convenership was as high as things we going to get for the former Deputy Leader and Leadership Candidate. What this does mean is that the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee (she's on familiar ground with this portfolio) is now looking for a new Convener. It'll probably be Rob Gibson.

Elsewhere, Communities Minister Stewart Maxwell returns to the back benches, to be replaced with Alex Neil, another firebrand who split from Labour to help Jim Sillars found the Scottish Labour Party, only for that to fail in its endeavours. Like Sillars, he went to the SNP and became a fairly trenchant critic of the current Leadership. Unlike Sillars, he has mellowed a great deal, even becoming a sort of Minister for Newsnight Scotland. This means that the European and External Relations Committee needs a new Deputy Convener (and I'm surprised he didn't get the Culture and External Affairs job, incidentally). Neil's title is Minister for Housing and Communities. The Sport element of his portfolio now heads to Shona Robison's Public Health brief, which is an arguably more sensible place to put it than Communities.

Finally, Schools Minister Maureen Watt is replaced with Keith Brown, MSP for Ochil and former Convener of the Standards Committee. The ex-marine is currently one of the Parliamentary Liaison Officers to the Office of the First Minster (the Holyrood equivalent of a PPS). He also has eleven years' experience in local government for the SNP, and having led Clackmannanshire Council for four of those years, comes with some experience of policy delivery, so should suit a Ministerial post. He also served in the Falklands, so shouldn't find the rough and tumble of Holyrood too taxing.

It's an interesting move, all in all: the most experienced Minister to lose a place was Linda Fabiani, in Parliament since 1999 but never really held a major role on the SNP front bench. Stewart Maxwell came in four years later (and was the only one of the ill-fated West of Scotland Class of 2003 to retain his seat, with Campbell Martin being booted out of the party and standing in vain as an Independent, and Bruce McFee standing down altogether), though can claim the smoking ban as his. I suppose that had he taken the Public Health brief, he would have remained in situ today - he would probably have been more assured there - but fate dealt him a different card and he goes to the back benches. Maureen Watt, meanwhile, may have SNP Parliamentarianism in her blood - her father Hamish was SNP MP for Banffshire from February 1974 until the 1979 Election - but she herself was only sworn in in 2006 and sadly, orbitted around Planet Gaffe once or twice (including one unfortunate proposal to introduce bloggery to the Curriculum).

By contrast, Roseanna Cunningham was John Swinney's Deputy, Alex Neil is one of the SNP's big beasts, and Keith Brown may have only just entered Holyrood but has more than a decade of experience in local government on which to draw.

On the Opposition parties: no word yet of a reshuffle on their part, though short of moving personnel around to match Mike Russell, it's doubtful what point there would be of moving people yet. Iain Gray has to consider if Pauline McNeill is who he wants to handle the Constitution, but there is as yet no reason to make wholesale changes. The Tories have a limited pool on which to call anyway, so anything they offered would be nothing more than the odd swap. The same is true for the LibDems, whose portfolios bear no relation to Cabinet posts anyway, so there'd be no point.


Holyrood Patter said...

Interesting how random events can shape your opinions.
maureen watt came to my school in late 2007 and insisted on everyone, down to the smallest pupils, calling her minister.
i wasnt impressed

Will said...

Those random moments can be the most instructive: what does it say about someone if she has to give herself airs in front of schoolkids?

Anonymous said...

Adding the Constitution to the Culture brief is actually following Labour's nomenclature. Both Malcolm Chisholm and Pauline McNeill had the shadow Fabiani brief plus the role, Scottish Labour Party Spokesperson on the Constitution. Both were also given seats in the Shadow Cabinet.

Will said...

Anon, I'm aware that the term suddenly popped up during Malcolm Chisholm's tenure, but the Scottish Labour website bears no trace of McNeill holding the title - according to that, she's still the "Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Europe, External Affairs and Culture". No mention of the Constitution as yet.

Mike Russell's post will probably still be considered "Junior", but I'd bet good money that he'll be attending Cabinet meetings fairly frequently.

Anonymous said...


She has definately held the constitution brief for Labour since the Gray Man took over.

Will said...

So I see! Which is odd as it's not mentioned on the Labour site - it looks then as though she's held that role in addition to her Shadow Cabinet brief: possibly due to Labour's position about the Constitution being a reserved matter and so not for lowly MSPs to dare discuss. Will her title formally change, I wonder?

Holyrood Patter said...

hope not
i love that video of her on youtube, during her victory speech.

Stuart Winton said...

Re the comments about Maureen Watt, she might have been a bit peeved yesterday when Glen Campbell was giving his spiel about the reshuffle on Holyrood Live but forgot her name, but managed to remember the other two.

He managed to skilfully waffle his way out of it though, and did remember her name by the end of the piece, but good fun for viewers!