Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday put a former Westminster heavyweight in charge of the push for a second referendum on independence from the UK, as part of a major cabinet reshuffle that promoted high-flyers from her ruling party to key economy and health roles.
The changes followed the governing Scottish National party’s unprecedented fourth consecutive victory in elections to the devolved parliament at Holyrood this month that set the stage for an extended constitutional stand-off with the UK government.
Sturgeon said she had chosen a team to meet the challenges of coronavirus recovery, climate change and the UK’s exit from the EU. “This term of office is unquestionably the most important one the nation has faced since devolution more than 20 years ago,” the first minister said.
Sturgeon, who has pledged to push for a second independence referendum after the coronavirus crisis is past, appointed former leader of the SNP group in Westminster Angus Robertson as secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture portfolio.
She appointed Kate Forbes, the finance secretary and rising SNP figure widely seen as a potential future party leader, to an expanded role that now includes responsibility for the wider economy.
Humza Yousaf, previously justice secretary and another high-flyer who Sturgeon herself in March mentioned alongside Forbes as a potential successor, was named to the crucial health portfolio, one of the key policy areas devolved from Westminster.
Robertson’s new position gives the former deputy party leader, who served as an MP at Westminster for 16 years until 2017, a central role in plans to pass legislation for a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum, in which voters in Scotland backed staying in the union by 55 to 45 per cent.
The UK prime minister Boris Johnson has made it clear he would not approve a second referendum but Sturgeon has said her government is ready to try to hold such a vote under current UK devolution legislation and dare opponents to try to block it in the courts.
Sturgeon retained her deputy first minister John Swinney, a former SNP leader, but moved him from education to a newly created and broadly defined “Covid recovery” portfolio.
Swinney was forced into a series of high-profile U-turns over his attempts to reform primary and secondary education and the government’s failed initial strategy for grading pupils following the cancellation of exams because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The independent government watchdog Audit Scotland said last month that Sturgeon’s government had failed to meet its goals for narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and wealthy school pupils, something the first minister had called her “defining mission”.
The education portfolio, another devolved policy area, goes to Shirley-Anne Somerville, previously social security secretary.
Sturgeon appointed her close friend and ally Shona Robison as secretary for social justice, housing and local government. Robison was health secretary until leaving the role in a 2018 reshuffle that followed extensive criticism of the SNP’s record on hospitals.
The Scottish Conservatives, the second largest party at Holyrood, dismissed what they called an “uninspired, rundown” SNP government.
“The best that Nicola Sturgeon can muster is the same tired faces that have already failed Scotland’s schools, hospitals and justice system,” said Stephen Kerr, Scottish Tory chief whip.
Sturgeon said she had appointed a “serious government for the serious times we face as a nation”.
“The immediate challenge is the focus on recovery and the part that all policy portfolios can play in that,” the first minister said, but made clear that a renewed referendum push would follow.
“When the crisis is over and the time is right, Scotland must and will have the chance to choose its future in line with the unquestionable democratic mandate for that choice,” she said.
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