First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stands on the steps of Bute House in Edinburgh alongside her newly formed Cabinet – Andrew Milligan/PA
Nicola Sturgeon has sacked two of her most senior ministers in a major overhaul of the Scottish cabinet.
Fergus Ewing, who was rural affairs secretary, and Fiona Hyslop, who held the economy brief, were axed from the First Minister’s top team on Wednesday morning.
Humza Yousaf has been promoted to become Scotland’s new Health Secretary, while Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, has gone straight into the cabinet with responsibility for the constitution, external affairs and culture, less than a fortnight after he was elected an MSP.
It means Mr Robertson will have a major role in seeking to deliver a new independence referendum.
Both Mr Ewing and Ms Hyslop had both served continuously in Government since the SNP won election in 2007, meaning the pair had almost three decades of experience in office between them.
Mr Ewing was seen as being one of the few right-leaning SNP ministers and the most business-friendly of Ms Sturgeon’s team, but has paid the price for becoming embroiled in a series of controversies.
He was facing an investigation over claims of bullying civil servants, which he denies, and had faced questions over his involvement in taxpayer-backed deals with Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance.
The GFG group is facing a funding crisis following the collapse of its main backer, Greensill Capital, raising fears that the public purse will be exposed for hundreds of millions of pounds.
Rather than turn to junior ministers to fill posts, the First Minister largely looked to SNP veterans who have served in cabinet roles before.
Shona Robison, who is close to Ms Sturgeon but left government in 2018 after a turbulent tenure in charge of health, has been brought back to the cabinet and will be in charge of social justice, housing and local government.
Shirley-Anne Somerville has been given the education brief, after John Swinney was axed from the post after presiding over what opponents claimed were a series of failures in an area that was supposed to be the SNP’s top priority.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney pose for a photo outside Bute House in Edinburgh – POOL/Reuters
Michael Matheson retains his role in charge of transport, with added responsibilities for climate change and energy. Keith Brown has been brought back to the cabinet for the first time since 2018, and becomes the new Justice Secretary.
Mairi Gougeon becomes Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, and is the only figure other than Mr Robertson to have been handed a cabinet brief for the first time.
Mr Swinney remains deputy First Minister and is in charge of leading Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic.
Kate Forbes, one of three cabinet ministers aged under 40, will remain in charge of finance, with added responsibility for the economy.
“Scotland needs a serious Government for the serious times we face as a nation, and in the top level ministerial line-up I have announced today we have exactly that,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“This term of office is 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.”
Ms Sturgeon said her government’s immediate priority would be recovery from the pandemic but reiterated her desire to hold another vote on leaving the UK within the next five years. She said: “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.”
The cabinet is slimmed down slightly, with 10 posts instead of the 12 before the election. Cabinet ministers are entitled to a salary of £112,919, including their pay as an MSP. A series of high-profile ministers, including Jeane Freeman, Mike Russell and Roseanna Cunningham, stood down at MSPs at this month’s election, in which the SNP won 64 of 129 Holyrood seats, one short of a majority.
Ms Sturgeon paid tribute to Mr Ewing and Ms Hyslop after they were ditched from the cabinet. The Scottish Government is yet to confirm whether or not the investigation into Mr Ewing will cease now that he has left cabinet.
She 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.”
Stephen Kerr, chief whip for the Scottish Tories, said: “The best that Nicola Sturgeon can muster is the same tired faces that have already failed Scotland’s schools, hospitals and justice system.
“The Scottish Conservatives are building a real alternative to this uninspired, run-down SNP Government that already looks out of ideas for taking Scotland forward.”