Sturgeon reshuffle sees blundering deputy given economic brief

Nicola Sturgeon’s independence reshuffle: First Minister sacks deputy John Swinney from education role after a catalogue of ‘damaging’ blunders – but puts him in charge of repairing the Scottish economy instead

  • Mr Swinney has been handed a key new economic and health role in the Cabinet
  • He has been appointed Scotland’s first Coronavirus Recovery Secretary
  • High profile blunders as Education Secretary included 202 exams fiasco

Nicola Sturgeon has axed her blundering deputy John Swinney from his education brief in a reshuffle that prepares the ground for a new independence push – by putting him in charge of Scotland’s recovery from Covid.

Mr Swinney, who presided over disasters including last year’s exams chaos and faced two votes of no confidence, has been handed a key new economic and health role in the First Minister’s revamped Cabinet.

After being returned as First Minister Ms Sturgeon today also axed two of her longest serving ministers. Both Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop and Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing have been part of the Scottish Government since the SNP took power in 2007.

But it is the repositioning of Mr Swinney to be Scotland’s Coronavirus Recovery Secretary that has attracted the most attention, sparking accusations that by giving him the newly created post, Nicola Sturgeon is ‘gambling’ with the country’s health and economy.

He has been reappointed as Deputy First Minister but questions have been raised about his new role following high profile blunders when he was Education Secretary. 

These included last year’s cancelled exams, which led to thousands of pupils having their final grades downgraded based on their school’s performance.

He also came under fire over the failure to close the attainment gap, reduce class sizes, address the narrowing curriculum or reverse a trend for classes covering multiple levels in secondaries.

The reshuffle came after the SNP leader insisted that ‘Scotland’s future must be Scotland’s choice’ as MSPs overwhelmingly returned her to the top post following the nationalist victory in Holyrood elections two weeks ago.

Setting out her priorities in the Scottish Parliament last night she said she wanted to lead the country ‘to brighter and better times’ with recovery from the coronavirus pandemic her ‘driving priority’.


Rewarded for failure? Mr Swinney, who presided over disasters including last year’s exams chaos and faced two votes of no confidence, has been handed a key new economic and health role in the First Minister’s revamped Cabinet.

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said putting Mr Swinney in charge of the recovery pandemic was ‘potentially gambling with the health and well-being of the nation’

Questions have been raised about Mr Swinney’s his new role following high profile blunders when he was Education Secretary. These included last year’s cancelled exams, which led to thousands of pupils having their final grades downgraded based on their school’s performance.

The First Minister had faced growing calls to sack Ms Swinney after he just survived the no-confidence votes in the previous parliamentary term.

Yesterday, Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said: ‘It is right that John Swinney has been moved on from his previous role.

‘He has left a wake of damaging failures behind him that require urgent action to fix.’

But she said putting Mr Swinney in charge of the recovery pandemic was ‘potentially gambling with the health and well-being of the nation’.

She added: ‘While we wish him well, he must demonstrate quickly that he is up to the job.’

The Scottish Conservatives said Mr Swinney ‘presided over failure after failure in our schools’. 

His new role of Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery has been described as the most important brief in the Scottish Government, aside from the job of First Minister.

Mr Swinney will work closely with the UK Government on the coronavirus recovery, co-ordinating Scottish Government departments and working with cross-party groups as the pandemic comes to an end.

He will also ‘mobilise the Scottish Government and wider public, private and third sectors to ensure a strong recovery’.

Mr Swinney will chair a cross-party steering group on the recovery, which will hold its first meeting next week, and take the lead on intergovernmental relations, public service reform, and the delivery of ‘transformational projects’.

Miss Sturgeon said her priority is to lead the country through the pandemic and into a recovery.

She added: ‘Appointing John Swinney to drive cross-government work on Covid recovery is a key step in getting Scotland’s recovery off to the right start.’

Mr Swinney said that recovery in schools, the NHS, the economy and across wider society is ‘this Government’s immediate priority and I am honoured to have been asked to lead that mission’.

He added: ‘I am determined that the Government will bring the same urgency that we applied to the actions we took to protect public health, to the actions we need to take to secure a fair and just recovery.’


After being returned as First Minister Ms Sturgeon today also axed two of her longest serving ministers. Both Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop and Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing have been part of the Scottish Government since the SNP took power in 2007.

Speaking as she began her cabinet reshuffle, Ms Sturgeon said: “I want to pay tribute to the work of both Fiona Hyslop and Fergus Ewing and to thank them for their unstinting public service over many years.

“Fiona has served in Cabinet since 2007, firstly as Education Secretary, then as Culture and External Affairs Secretary before taking on the Economy and Fair Work portfolio.

“Her tenure in the External Affairs brief saw Fiona oversee the expansion of the Scottish Government’s international footprint, giving our country a higher profile than it has ever had before on the global stage, and that is a legacy which she can and should be justly proud of.”

Speaking about Mr Ewing, the First Minister said: “Fergus has also been part of the ministerial team since 2007, and has brought diligence and endeavour to all of the jobs he has held.

“In particular, he has worked tirelessly with and on behalf of Scotland’s rural sector over the past five years since the Brexit vote, fighting their corner at every turn.

“Fergus has been a champion for Scotland’s farmers and crofters during one of the most difficult, challenging and uncertain periods our agricultural sector has ever faced, and he has the gratitude of many in the industry for his efforts to protect their interests.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “I want to offer my sincere thanks to Fiona and Fergus for their service, and wish them well as they continue to serve their constituents in the new Parliament.”

The reshuffle is taking place after the SNP won a record fourth term in government at Holyrood, although Ms Sturgeon’s party just fell short of winning an overall majority at Holyrood.

The election in May also saw a number of senior politicians leave the Scottish Parliament, with Constitution Secretary Mike Russell, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell all choosing to step away from politics, while energy minister Paul Wheelhouse failed to be re-elected.

Humza Yousaf, who is currently Justice Secretary, was the first to arrive at Bute House, followed by Kate Forbes, who currently holds the finance brief.

Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon revealed on Twitter that coronavirus measures meant she had to speak to Shirley-Anne Sommerville, who is currently Social Security Secretary, via Zoom.

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