01 December 2009

A Second Choice

The pack has been re-shuffled, and it's a straight substitution: Mike Russell becomes Education Secretary; Fiona Hyslop becomes Culture Minister.

It's no surprise: education was the policy area where the SNP manifesto was the most ambitious; it was therefore always going to be the area most laden with potential pitfalls. The simplistic answer would be to say that the Government should be better at delivery. Well, of course. But, with the Budget being a zero-sum game, as John Swinney puts it, the money required to go the full distance would put practically everything else in jeopardy, particularly in light of a mediocre Comprehensive Spending Review and further unkind cuts to the Scottish Budget. More could, and should, have been done, but how?

Of course, the other answer would have been to promise less. Again, maybe. But why shouldn't a political party be bold? Why shouldn't a manifesto be a statement of what the party believes in? Politics may be the art of the possible, but if that's the case, why did, say, the Tories - who said right from the get-go that they'd eschew any formal power deal - even bother to print a manifesto? Most major parties can look at past manifestos and reflect that, actually, things didn't go quite as they'd hoped, like when Labour said they wouldn't introduce top-up fees, then - whoops! - introduced top-up fees, or when the LibDems said they'd get rid of tuition fees altogether, then - whoops! - voted to replace one tuition fee with another instead. Sometimes you don't get as far as you'd like, but it's generally a good thing for the electorate to see which way parties are facing. It's even better for them to then travel in that direction, though I suppose that not getting quite as far as everyone wanted is better than changing lanes altogether.

Still, the reality is that this portfolio has been a bear trap for the SNP and obviously, re-assessment as to how things are going is needed. And obviously, someone other than the person who has got us to where we are has to undertake that re-assessment.

So, then, the timing. Obviously, the LibDem no-confidence vote has concentrated the FM's mind somewhat. This was a real threat (unlike the discussion of a similar vote for Kenny MacAskill during the Lockerbie row, a threat which never materialised) and the outcome would have been inevitable. Indeed, the main surprise is that it's taken this long to arrive: the opposition has been gunning for Fiona Hyslop all year - something the Tories telegraphed almost 12 months ago by pointing out how many votes Fiona Hyslop had lost in the Parliament since her appointment. The idea that Alex Salmond hadn't noticed until today that his Education Secretary did not have her troubles to seek is laughable.

And, let's be honest here, would it have been wise for the no-confidence motion to be the trigger? Patently not: if that were the only cause, then Alex Salmond would have ceded an important power to the Opposition - the power to determine his ministerial line-up! Now, of course, that power is technically in the hands of the Parliament anyway, and the Opposition enjoys a majority in the Parliament, but the fact remains that First Ministers generally prefer to remain (and have, up to now, remained) in control of who they appoint. Hand that over without a fight, and that's it - game over. That's the rationale for keeping her, albeit moving and demoting her (incidentally, for those who wince at the idea of moving from Education to Culture being a demotion: she has moved from being a Cabinet Secretary to a Minister, or to use the Scotland Act terms, from being a Minister to a Junior Minister, and has taken a pay cut: therefore, I'm afraid the term is correct). Alex Salmond still wants Fiona Hyslop to play a role in his Government. End of.

So could something else be at work here? Mike Russell was brought to his current post to develop the White Paper. The White Paper is now written. Now there's legislation to steer, which the FM has said that he himself will do - seeing as this was always in the Department of the First Minister, this makes sense - so Russell can move on to the next task. Which is quite clearly education. Perhaps, and we can't know this, but it's a good bet, with the White Paper now out there, this move was always going to happen? It's logical, given that Russell's primary task in his previous role is now complete, and it's far more logical than the possibility that the Liberal Democrats succeeded in dictating to the First Minister just who he should have in his line-up. Obviously, this was a major vulnerability here, but simply giving in would serve simply to expose that vulnerability further (and set an ugly precedent) unless more were going on than we realised.

So what of Mike Russell? He's beginning to be seen as a key lieutenant, perhaps even an enforcer, within the Government: not so much the Mandelson-figure that LPW sees, but perhaps a more affable, SNP version of John Reid. Reidzo, if we remember, became the first post-devolution Scotland Secretary, stepped into the breach at the Northern Ireland Office after Peter Mandelson imploded for a second time, filled in as Leader of the House of Commons after Robin Cook resigned, took over the Health portfolio following the surprise resignation of Alan Milburn, steadied matters in the MoD following Geoff Hoon's rough ride, and came to the rescue of the Home Office at the calamitous end of Charles Clarke's tenure there. Mike Russell, meanwhile, has stepped up to the plate following the difficult period endured by Linda Fabiani as Culture Minister, and now does the same again as he replaces Fiona Hyslop. We can see, therefore, the embryo of a Reid-esque career progression. If he can settle matters down in this portfolio as he did so well at his last one, it can only grow stronger.


Stuart Winton said...

Not wholly convinced about your take on Alex Salmond steering the referendum legislation through Parliament, Will - it looks more like that he doesn't trust anyone else to handle it, or alternatively he's not taking it that seriously.

And as regards Mr Salmond being seen to be in control of who he appoints, what happened to his previous threats to bring his government tumbling down on a no confidence vote?

Will said...

Stuart, that's a possibility - all we can do is read the tea leaves here - but one could equally argue that, as Leader of the SNP, he wants to be the one to do what no SNP Parliamentarian has done before, and present that bill.

And in a way, your point about bringing the whole edifice down illustrates what I was saying: he has threatened to take everyone down if anyone tries to mess with one of his appointments, so again, this behaviour is a major change in the pattern and accordingly, casts doubt on how tightly the no confidence vote is linked to proceedings.