At the end of a very big fortnight for the Scottish Government, up pops the latest poll on voting intentions for the Holyrood elections. And it won’t bring much cheer.
The headlines are pretty dismal. Labour has cemented its lead on the constituency vote while the SNP has narrowed the gap slightly on the list vote. And apparently most people reckon the Scottish budget will either hurt them personally or be bad for the country. Any good news headlines from its launch a mere ten days ago got lost in the mire of claim and counterclaim relating to the availability of the Scottish Parliament’s tax-varying powers. This week we had the unprecedented sight of not one, but two Scottish Ministers apologising to Parliament. The fact that one of them was the First Minister turned this into a jaw dropping moment.
Aye. I’m sure the SNP might conclude it’s had better times. But what to do? How to get back on the front foot and start turning the polls? How to get the positive messages this Government undoubtedly has out there and into the public consciousness? The SNP has barely five months to turn things around and it needs to do something.
One hitherto scarcely remarked upon feature of the Scottish Government has been the omnipresence of its main protagonists. Unlike previous First Ministers, Alex Salmond has moved Ministers around just once in four years. The Cabinet has seen one big change that also resulted in a shifting of the chairs on the lower deck, but that’s been it. Until now, it’s seemed like a very sensible thing: the SNP’s biggest talents have had the time to bed in and make the portfolio their own. But familiarity can and does breed contempt.
The litany of Scottish Government ministers garnering headlines for all the wrong reasons is growing. Anyone can and will have a poor judgement call. But when most of your front bench can have the finger pointed at them and their supposed failings recalled in a word or two – Trump, Rauf, tartan tax, al Megrahi, class sizes – you may have a problem. Keeping Ministers in their berths has certainly given this Scottish Government stability, but might that have atrophied into stagnation?
Might it be time for Salmond to shuffle the pack?
It would be a gamble so close to the elections in May but desperate times require drastic measures. Doing anything is difficult: having a small Cabinet of only five portfolios might have created a necessary impression of small government but it does not leave a lot of room for manoeuvre. Given that the only parliamentary game in town in the next few months is the budget, moving John Swinney would probably not be very clever. But there is scope surely to freshen up his junior team. Jim Mather is retiring so giving a returning face some experience would actually be a very good thing. Adding an extra Minister, someone with a bit of verve and colour, to help distribute the weight of Swinney’s enormous Ministerial bag more evenly might also help. And Stewart Stevenson might be perceived by the First Minister as a safe pair of hands but ponder this: which Minister’s portfolio gave Hugh Henry his double triumph at the Politician of the Year Awards?
Demoting any of his big beasts would be difficult, and might even cause Salmond unintended internal difficulties. At best, his options are to move people round – Sturgeon out of health and into justice, MacAskill into education and Russell into health possibly. The one available post for full scale change might be Richard Lochhead’s at rural affairs and while he might not be considered to have done anything to deserve demotion, his safe and steady performance doesn’t necessarily mean he’s done anything to prevent it. He might have to be the fallguy for the party’s greater good in difficult times, but the SNP can be pretty loyal and such self sacrifice would not go unrecognised in the long term.
But the other problem Salmond has is who? Who could be brought in and importantly, hit the ground running? Shona Robison is well overdue a post of her own and Roseanna Cunningham is an undoubted talent who could step up to the plate. And there are several on the backbenches who might be worth a punt in a junior ministerial role. But whisper it, the SNP’s talent pool is not nearly as wide nor as deep as it needs to be. In fact, it’s arguable it is the slim pickings on offer on the opposition benches that make the SNP look good. Kenny Farquharson’s commentary in today’s Scotland on Sunday discusses the dearth of bright young political things on both front benches more fully.
Perhaps it matters less that he has talent aplenty to call on but simply that he has a pressing need to freshen things up. With little sign of movement in the polls and time beginning to run out, Salmond needs to consider all options. Including the nuclear ones.