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Business may regret Swinney’s move

Terry portrait with tieBusiness leaders were delighted when Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to split John Swinney’s brief and create a new post of Economy Secretary. They may be a little less happy about what came next.

As has been stated here numerous times, Mr Swinney’s brief was too big, embracing everything from the constitution to the new tax powers. Hiving off the economy always made sense so that it, along with finance, is afforded the attention it merits.

But everyone was caught by surprise when Ms Sturgeon’s new Cabinet meant switching Mr Swinney to education. Important as it is (and the First Minister has declared it her top priority), it does mean a dislocation in the delivery of her deputy’s previous functions.

Firstly, as the man in charge of the nation’s finances he has prepared it for the new powers. It seemed to make sense to leave Mr Swinney in what is now seen as a quasi-Chancellorship to see the job through to completion.

This task falls to rookie Cabinet member Derek Mackay, an able and popular figure in government with experience of high office at Renfrewshire Council as well as his role as Transport minister in the last parliament. His new job, however, is on an entirely different scale and his ability to bed-in the new tax powers will be closely scrutinised.

Mr Swinney’s change of role will disappoint those in the business community with whom he has built a good rapport. While his new land and buildings transaction tax divides opinion, and the government’s policies on business rates are unpopular, he has commanded an unusually high level of respect for his approach to business growth, in particular the need to promote the entrepreneurial agenda.

At the opening of the new Mallzee offices in Edinburgh he went so far as to say that the money he had allocated to the Scottish EDGE Fund “to have been some of the most impactful sums of money that I’ve ever allocated. It is the best decision I have taken as a government minister.”

However, he now has other priorities and business will be watching to see how much it may be expected to contribute to improving the education system.

There is also a move for Fergus Ewing from business, replaced by the less well-known Paul Wheelhouse who will work with the new Economy Secretary Keith Brown. As the former Infrastructure Secretary Mr Brown at least brings to the table a key issue for business – the need to improve the country’s ability to connect.

The separation of finance and economy is a signal of the growing maturity of the parliament and it is now down to Mr Brown and Mr Mackay to prove that the added focus on each will be mutually beneficial.

A big worry for business will be that Mr Mackay will come under more pressure to fund the social agenda, not least from the man he has replaced.

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