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Days Without an Accident: ZERO
Humza Yousaf's reshuffle is going wrong. Perhaps the SNP can't be put back together.
An Impossible Task for the Most Talented of Leaders
You might imagine reshuffles as a moment when the chief executive is at their most powerful: dispensing patronage, promoting allies, and punishing those who have crossed them. In reality, it is often when leaders are at their most vulnerable.
Before you even get into the political management of who sits where in your government, it is a logistical nightmare. You have to speak to the right people, in the right order. In one often-recounted incident, Tony Blair wanted to appoint former Harold Wilson adviser Bernard Donoughue to ministerial office. Unfortunately, the usually exceptional Downing Street switchboard put him through to Brian Donohoe by accident. An awkward few minutes on the telephone followed.
As a leader, you have to create space for the newly appointed without creating too many disappointed in the old guard. Any one of the calls you make can undo your entire plans. What you might think is a bold move that demonstrates your authority can fatally undermine it.
One of my old bosses was called in during a reshuffle when the Prime Minister wanted to move him. When the PM told him his time in his current position was up my Minister treated what was a statement as if it was a question and told him, no, he wouldn’t be moved. When the Prime Minister said it again he told him he understood but that he wanted a better offer. I watched in awe that day as he was called into Downing Street no less than three times, repeatedly refusing offers, until he eventually accepted another cabinet post. The power relationship had completely changed simply by saying no.
A reshuffle either makes you look strong or it makes you look weak. So far Yousaf’s first reshuffle is placing him in the latter category. That isn’t the end of the world for most leaders who have time to recover, but when you enter office with a questionable mandate and a reputation for being accident-prone, you need a reshuffle that is both decisive and deft. However, as Alison Rowat writes this morning yesterday renforced the existing negative perceptions of the novice First Minister:
“He's making enemies and mistakes faster than anyone thought possible, even for a man with his track record.”
Where the Sun Don’t Shine
Humza Yousaf started the day yesterday saying “I absolutely want Kate Forbes to be part of the government”. By the end of the day, she had, according to sources speaking to by the Scottish Sun, "told him where to stick it."
The thing the new First Minister was invited to use as a suppository was the role of agriculture secretary. Though an important job, this position has a long history of being seen as the booby prize of reshuffles. David Miliband famously complained that he was being asked to deal with “cows farting” when offered it. If not quite a political graveyard, it’s certainly the political farmyard. When you have been finance secretary it is an obvious demotion.
But what do you do with a problem like Kate Forbes?
Her old job is out of the question when she committed to small government and set herself against tax rises. She couldn’t be offered Net Zero, Energy and Transport when she had voiced opposition to an accelerated phasing out of North Sea oil and when she’s said the bottle recycling scheme is “economic carnage.” Social Justice, Housing and Local Government is out because of her opposition to gender reform legislation. Health Secretary? Abortion. Education might have been an option - although the first question she would be asked would be whether she would have voted to repeal section 2a.
Given the runner-up’s views, it may be a relief that she is nowhere near power, but remember that nearly half of the SNP membership voted for Forbes and in support of these positions. A problem Kenny Farquharson writes about this morning.
It isn’t just that there is now a left-right split in the SNP, there is a split between those who recognise there are deep problems with Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy and those who are satisfied with the “mediocrity” Forbes railed against. Half of the party wanted change, but the continuity candidate squeaked it.
So with no room for Forbes, her conservative views, and her critical voice, Yousaf was forced to constructively dismiss his rival and cement these divisions. That is a sign of weakness, not strength. The SNP split is too wide, the wounds too raw, to be stitched back together.
Like a Cup of Cold S***e
The briefings, on or off the record, against your leadership are meant to come at the end, not the very beginning.
On the record, Alex Neil thought the offer to Forbes was “An insult and not a real effort to unite. A poor start”. Johanna Cherry was disappointed that there would not be “a government of all the talents.”
Off the record, Yousaf’s own supporters described the move as “politically flat-footed”, with one telling the Times:
“If he had got 70 percent that’s fine but this is cack-handed.”
One SNP MSP told the Herald:
“To be honest, it doesn’t look good. We were all hoping the ructions of the leadership contest were behind us, and that we could get everyone together again. I’m surprised and disappointed. I just want things to get operational again. The election went on an awful long time, and now this could keep the arguments going.”
Another SNP source told the Scotsman the new First Minister is an “absolute fool”:
“When you scrape into Bute House by the smallest of margins you don’t humiliate your finance secretary by offering her such a demotion.”
Others were a little more, well, agricultural in their language:
Meanwhile, sources close to Ash Regan are also briefing:
“The party’s in quite a lot of trouble and the independence movement is finished.”
Quite a first day as First Minister.
Culture Corner/In Case You Missed It
I’m combining these two sections in this issue with a political moment with a bit of culture woven into it. In the middle of all the drama of the last few days, a speech by Labour’s education shadow (and interest declared, my friend) Michael Marra went largely unnoticed. As a deconstruction of the SNP’s tendency towards trendiness in economic policy, it must have been painful for John Swinney to watch.
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