Nicola Sturgeon has prioritised the Covid recovery and difficult transition to a net zero economy in a significant reshuffle of her cabinet that boosts the roles of younger ministers.
Sturgeon, the first minister, appointed her deputy, John Swinney, to the newly created cabinet post of secretary for Covid recovery, while Michael Matheson, formerly the transport and infrastructure secretary, was given the post of climate, energy and transport secretary, prior to the Cop26 climate talks later this year in Glasgow.
The first minister, who pledged to prioritise the pandemic over a second independence referendum before the election, said the Covid crisis and the task of transitioning quickly to a zero carbon economy meant the current term of office was “unquestionably the most important one the nation has faced since devolution more than 20 years ago”.
“We are dealing with the joint challenges of a global pandemic and recovery from it, the ongoing tests posed by Brexit and the urgent, pressing, need to take forward our net zero agenda as part of the global efforts to secure a greener future,” she said.
The reshuffle, which follows the Scottish National party’s victory in the elections on 6 May, winning 64 of Holyrood’s 129 seats, again led to a gender-balanced cabinet of five women and five men.
Kate Forbes, the finance secretary, who entered Holyrood in 2016, was given an enhanced role taking in economic policy and trade, and Mairi Gougeon, another relative newcomer, was promoted from public health to become secretary for rural affairs and islands. Gougeon had won plaudits from environmentalists in a previous role as rural affairs minister. She replaced Fergus Ewing, a veteran minister seen by his critics as a conservative force who resisted reforms including grouse moor licensing. Ewing was sacked by Sturgeon along with Fiona Hyslop, another veteran cabinet minister.
The Scottish Greens, who may soon hold talks with Sturgeon about some form of deal at Holyrood short of a formal coalition, softened their highly critical attacks on the SNP’s climate and transport policies. However Lorna Slater, the party’s co-leader , elected to Holyrood on 6 May, said Sturgeon’s ministers had to work collaboratively in parliament and stick to the SNP’s manifesto promises.
“To build a green recovery that leaves no one behind and tackles the climate crisis we will need all of government to pull in the same direction. We cannot return to the days of government saying one thing and ministers lobbying for the other behind the scenes,” Slater said.
In the first sign of friction, Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said his four MSPs would oppose Angus Robertson as Sturgeon’s appointment as constitution secretary, when their posts come up for ratification in Holyrood on Thursday. “Now is not the moment to appoint a minister for another referendum,” Rennie said.
Robertson, a former SNP deputy leader and Westminster group leader, is the only newly elected SNP MSP to gain a cabinet secretary post in the reshuffle. Signalling that the quest for an independence referendum was not an immediate priority, Sturgeon slotted Robertson into the post previously held by Mike Russell, who retired at the election, without expanding the brief.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “The first minister made the promise [before the election] that she would focus on our recovery – we will hold her to it. The national recovery must be this parliament’s collective national mission, not the arguments of the past.”
The other appointments included a return to government for Shona Robison, made social justice secretary, and for Keith Brown, who takes over as justice secretary from Humza Yousaf, who has been moved to health. Shirley-Anne Somerville, formerly social security secretary, has been appointed education secretary.