John Swinney needs a clean break from Nicola Sturgeon if he is to prosper as SNP leader

John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon
John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon -Credit:Getty Images

John Swinney’s ability to drop the ‘yesterday’s man’ tag hinges on his answer to one fundamental question.

What were the mistakes made by Nicola Sturgeon when she was First Minister?

The SNP leader will have to issue a painfully honest appraisal of his former boss if he is to succeed.

Swinney was the glue in the SNP Government over sixteen years of the Sturgeon and Alex Salmond administrations.

As Finance Secretary, he negotiated budgets with the opposition during Salmond’s reign and helped find the money for the SNP’s most popular policies.

But he was also Sturgeon’s most trusted lieutenant over nine long and bruising years.

She was the skilled communicator who was able to articulate a vision of the future to Scots young and old.

He was the details guy who fixed problems and negotiated deals without fanfare.

Swinney’s allies say his great strength is bringing together the different elements of Government for a common purpose.

When Scotland was in lockdown, Sturgeon handed Swinney a key coordination role recognising covid was more than a public health catastrophe.

She again turned to her number two to lead the Government’s response into the potentially disastrous Salmond inquiry.

And she installed her old friend as Acting Finance Secretary when hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts had to be identified.

The thinking was Swinney knew when government departments were bullshitting and had expertise in balancing budgets.

The problem with being Sturgeon’s top ally is he is inevitably associated with her scandals.

She cited education as her top priority in government and gave the cabinet secretary brief to Swinney.

But he failed to cut the attainment gap in any meaningful way and her legacy has been tarnished.

Sturgeon was correct to give Swinney such a prominent role during covid, but there is a growing view that prolonged school closures have damaged a generation of children.

The Sturgeon administration was also renowned for secrecy and Swinney was knee deep in the swamp.

He went to great lengths to keep the Government’s legal advice on the botched probe into harassment claims into Salmond under lock and key.

He also deleted his covid Whatsapp messages and gave a limp defence that he was simply following the rules.

Swinney’s challenge is extricating himself from a politician to whom he feels instinctively loyal.

His friends admit the Government went way off track long before Humza Yousaf arrived in Bute House.

One said too much time had been spent by Sturgeon on “fucking acronyms” - namely gender recognition reform (GRR) and the deposit return scheme (DRS.)

The insider said: “We should be talking about health, education and the economy, not who has a penis and who doesn’t.”

Swinney is not a perfect politician - he failed spectacularly as SNP leader 20 years ago - but he has a better chance of uniting his Government and party than anyone.

He is the only SNP MSP who can cobble together majorities in parliament and he has the best shot at holding onto power in 2026.

But to present himself as the future he will need to be unsparingly honest about the failures of the past.

Yousaf gave Sturgeon a pass because he was too scared to take her on.

Swinney needs to admit the Sturgeon Government lost its way and a clean break is needed.

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