As I See It: The First Minister should respond to the education crisis by shuffling her Cabinet, says TERRY MURDEN
Nicola Sturgeon was clearly well briefed before Monday’s Q&A with the media, stealthily getting her defence in first by acknowledging that the government got the school grading process wrong. Those journalists’ queuing up to land a blow on the FM were probably left hastily rethinking their questions.
That said, the calls for Education Secretary John Swinney to quit are getting louder. A vote of no confidence has been tabled by the Labour party, supported by the Tories. The Greens say they may back the motion, at which point Mr Swinney may find himself expelled from the Holyrood class.
It won’t be for the desire of the FM to hold on to one of her most prized ministers; not just a minister, but the deputy First Minister. He also holds the brief for what the FM herself described as her number one priority. If she believes policy is a higher priority than those who hold office then her decision might be an easy one, however brutal.
But there is also the question as to how much he is a fall-guy in all this.
He does, of course, have form for failure. This latest fiasco came on top of his being forced to reverse an earlier decision to delay the reopening of schools. To what extent the schools grading fiasco was also a result of his own poor judgement and how much he too was a victim of a system that itself failed will draw a more probing assessment than any of the students he’s accused of letting down.
Whoever was really responsible for this miscalculation, the opposition and the government’s opponents in the media have marked Mr Swinney’s own performance down. Nil points. School dunce. Worse even than his own reputation being shredded, he’s accused of wrecking the life and career plans of hundreds of youngsters and bringing the Scottish educational system, once the envy of the world, into disrepute. They say that if you’re in a hole you should stop digging and the Education Secretary is probably reaching that point where he won’t be able to pull himself out.
And yet he could be thrown a rope to haul himself clear. I have to admit to a bit of a soft spot for Mr Swinney. He’s regarded around Holyrood as a ‘good bloke’, very personable and having a good brain. He was certainly well liked by the business community during his time as Finance Secretary. One business leader told me once how he was regarded fondly “because he gets it”. That’s not something that could be said of all politicians or ministers who have come in for criticism from former banker Benny Higgins and the ferries tycoon Jim McColl for their failure to understand and empathise with business.
In 2015, during the opening of the Edinburgh head office of shopping app Mallzee, Mr Swinney spoke about how helping fund the Scottish Edge programme to support young entrepreneurs “is the best decision I have taken as a government minister.” He seemed to have a genuine desire to listen and understand, and to respond to what business wanted.
I wrote at the time that business would regret Ms Sturgeon’s decision to switch Mr Swinney to the education brief, not just because he had built a good rapport with companies large and small, but because as Finance Secretary he had created the financial framework for the new powers that would emerge and was therefore ideally placed to apply them. Mr Swinney was replaced by Derek Mackay. We all know what happened next.
As for the outcome of the current crisis, Ms Sturgeon has already issued the government’s apologies and by stating that she wants to a lead a team of ministers prepared to admit to mistakes, she would be contradicting herself if she allowed Mr Swinney to step down.
Rather than face the indignity of losing one of her most senior ministers Ms Sturgeon could do a lot worse than reshuffle her front bench. Mr Swinney could swap roles with Fiona Hyslop, beefing up the brief by adding business to the economy. This would answer some of the government’s critics over a lack of focus on business and would also allow Kate Forbes to concentrate on tax and spending across government departments.
Crucially, it would shift the political agenda away from failure and on to a refreshed Cabinet. In an election year, Ms Sturgeon needs to get back on the front foot and, after losing Mr Mackay in controversial circumstances, she cannot afford another casualty.