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Kate Forbes is more dangerous inside government than out

Newly appointed Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes in Edinburgh today. Credit: Getty

May 8, 2024 - 3:30pm

Patronage is a double-edged sword for any leader. Doling out jobs can help keep mutinous colleagues onside — but at the risk of creating problems down the road if they choose to resign.

Rishi Sunak learned that lesson the hard way. Appointing Lee Anderson as deputy chairman of the Tory Party was seen as a way of hugging him close. But in the end, all it did was draw more attention to his rebellion over the Rwanda Bill — and his eventual defection to Reform UK.

John Swinney, the new First Minister of Scotland and returning leader of the SNP, is now making the same gamble. Kate Forbes, the former finance minister who ran Humza Yousaf extremely close in last year’s leadership contest, has today been appointed Deputy First Minister.

The case for it is clear enough. Forbes and her allies were already organising on the backbenches, and reportedly preparing to draw up an alternative policy prospectus to Yousaf’s. That’s a dangerous force for any leader to try and ignore.

What’s more, out of office Forbes would have had a free hand to criticise the Scottish Government on its many policy failures, and would not have had to take any ownership of those herself. As a minister, collective responsibility will apply.

Finally, while it looks as though Swinney has struck a deal with Forbes on policy — particularly on the Net Zero commitments made to the Greens — she may well be less provocative in the DFM role than in a policy-focused portfolio such as the finance brief.

Indeed, she may come to regret taking the position for just that reason; many Liberal Democrats certainly think Nick Clegg erred by accepting the role of deputy prime minister rather than a proper department during the Coalition years.

But just as Sunak did with Anderson, Swinney is taking a risk. A much bigger risk at that: polling suggests that while he is more popular with SNP voters, the Scottish public rates Forbes more highly as a potential first minister. As such, there is now a potential landmine in the path of the Scottish Government were she to walk out.

Swinney thus faces a difficult balancing act. He leads a divided party, the Sturgeonite wing of which is scarcely any keener on Forbes and her Tartan Tory style of nationalism than were the Greens. His whole job, as the unity candidate, is to try and keep a lid on those divisions until the next Holyrood elections, due to take place by May 2026.

That limits the First Minister’s room to make concessions to his new deputy on her policy programme. But he needs to make enough concessions that Forbes considers it worth her while sticking by the Scottish Government, even as the normal run of flops and scandals continues.

Unlike Anderson, Forbes seems unlikely to ever defect to another party. The only alternative on the pro-independence side would be Alex Salmond’s tiny Alba, and she’s too big a beast for that pen.

More plausible, if the SNP’s polling doesn’t improve in the next year or so, is that she decides to return to the backbenches ahead of the Holyrood vote, leaving the party hierarchy to carry the can for a bad result. Then, she will be able to present herself as a clean pair of hands in any subsequent leadership contest.

Swinney’s first stint as Nationalist leader, from 2000 to 2004, was not a happy one. But while the man himself has come on in the intervening quarter century, the broader situation has developed, to paraphrase Hirohito, not necessarily to the SNP’s advantage. His second run may well end up being no happier than the first.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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Nanumaga
Nanumaga
13 days ago

The reverence accorded to Kate Forbes by political pundits from outside the SNP coterie never ceases to astonish me. OK, she’s a Christian with socially conservative views which set her apart from the dubious SNP/Green gang which advocates for the form of child abuse and anti-women policies which characterised their rule under Sturgeon and Yousaf. Big deal!
She’s now, almost certainly, the most popular MSP with the rank and file of the SNP, and we would do well to remember what is the foundational priority of that political party – the dissolution of the Union and dismemberment of the United Kingdom.
Let’s look at Kate Forbes in this context for a change, and let’s consider her as the most potent force in Holyrood in the campaign to end the Union, and steer Scotland further towards a uni-party, socialist, failed state sitting on our border.
The risks of such an outcome cannot be readily dismissed, and we delude ourselves by seeing Kate Forbes as being somehow more amenable in the context of this crucial matter. She isn’t, and cannot ever be so. She’s SNP.

David McKee
David McKee
13 days ago
Reply to  Nanumaga

You are quite right. She’s a nationalist.
In the British context, that means she’s taken a holiday from reality, to see the England as an overbearing colonial despot. More specifically, she told Scottish pensioners that, after independence, the former colonial power (that’s us) would continue to pay pensions to the newly liberated ain folk, even as they breathe the heady air of freedom.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
13 days ago
Reply to  Nanumaga

Much as I dislike the SNP she could be the person to get independence over the line. The scottish left are already so pro-independence they can’t really win any more “Yes” votes in that direction. She is the only one of the National Scotialists that I worry about now.

Nanumaga
Nanumaga
13 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Quite. All the more reason for a more critical and useful appraisal of her. The peculiarly skewed view that she’s the SNP politician with whom we can do business is utterly bogus. She does what it says on the box.

richard jones
richard jones
13 days ago
Reply to  Nanumaga

Maybe the SNP will never be the cause of a majority vote to leave. Whether in government or opposition, the party has too many other responsibilities.
UKIP was key to Brexit but there was no appetite for it to be a presence in Parliament.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
13 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Except the people of Scotland don’t want independence anymore now than tbey did at the last referendum. Many who voted yes now would vote no, because the prospect of having an SNP c**k*p in an independent Scotland is not something we could thole.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
13 days ago

Humza Yousaf excluded from government the candidates who won 52% of the votes between them in the 2023 SNP leadership election. That didn’t work out too well for him. And it didn’t work out too well for Liz Truss to exclude Rishi Sunak, or for Boris Johnson to exclude Jeremy Hunt, when they won their leadership elections. This type of article sums up why party politics is now held in such low esteem. It’s not as if party political bases are so broad, or the talent pool is so deep, that new leaders can afford not to be magnanimous or to exclude the best candidates for ministerial office just because they come from a different wings of the party. Previous generations of political leaders knew they needed a diversity of opinion in their cabinets, and maintained respect, or at least acquiescence, as a result. But the current crop are smaller in every sense.

David Webb
David Webb
13 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I think Jeremy Hunt excluded himself from Boris’s Cabinet – he was offered the post of Defence Secretary which he declined – surprising as he was brought up in a Naval family.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
13 days ago
Reply to  David Webb

Well he could have made him Chancellor. He could hardly have been more useless than Sajid Javid or more duplicitous than Rishi Sunak. And Sunak would certainly have been more suitable at Education or Health than Gavin Williamson or Matt Hancock.

Nanumaga
Nanumaga
13 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Too much water under too many bridges. The Tories ain’t too good at looking at themselves, much less the manner in which they should look at the country.
They had such a huge vote in their favour which promised so much. They took this, they banked it, and then forgot what they were voted in for. Worse. They forgot who had voted for them.
Oddly enough, I have a feeling that we’ll be looking at no overall majority after the next GE….and I wouldn’t bet against the Tories having the greater number of seats. No other party is going to support them, apart from NI MPs, and that won’t be sufficient. Let’s see.

Tom K
Tom K
12 days ago

Deputy captain of the Titanic isn’t much of a coup.