John Swinney was right to bring Kate Forbes back into government as Deputy First Minister but he showed weakness in not making more changes to his Cabinet, according to a leading expert on the SNP.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, and the country's most prominent scholar on the SNP, said Mr Swinney needs to regain his party's reputation for competence in government and this goal would require "significant change at the top".

Mr Swinney was SNP leader from 2000 to 2004 when the party were in opposition at Holyrood and returned to the post uncontested last Monday following Humza Yousaf's resignation as party leader the previous week.

Mr Yousaf's decision to step down on April 29 followed his termination of the power sharing Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens and the prospect of losing a vote of no confidence in his role as First Minister after the Greens indicated they would not support him.

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The new First Minister quickly announced his new Cabinet on Wednesday but kept all his existing Cabinet ministers in place, a situation critics described as a "continuity cabinet".

Apart from bringing in Ms Forbes to be DFM, as well as economy and Gaelic secretary, the only other major change at the top ministerial tier saw Shona Robison step down from the DFM post. Ms Robison retained Cabinet responsibility for finance and also took on a new responsibility for local government.

Among his junior ministers Mr Swinney axed the post of minister for independence. Jamie Hepburn, who held the role, was made minister for parliamentary business.

The Herald: Professor James Mitchell. 

Mr Swinney had focused on a message of SNP unity as he launched his leadership bid admitting his party was not as "cohesive" as it should be. He said on Friday he believed independence could be delivered in five years, though he said more support needed to be built for the objective.

A poll last weekend, conducted from April 30 to May 3 after Mr Yousaf resigned, suggested the party would lose 28 MPs of its 43 at the general election to be left with 15, while Labour would increase their number from 2 to 28.

"John Swinney’s emphasis on re-uniting and bringing stability to the SNP speaks of a party on the defensive and engaged in damage limitation," Professor Mitchell told the Herald on Sunday after we asked him if the SNP now faced improved prospects at the general election.

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He added that while the First Minister's removal of the role of minister for independence suggested he was "facing realities" he also needed to be bolder with his party and say that independence was "off the agenda" in the run up to the Holyrood election in 2026.

"The question of how well or poorly the SNP does depends largely on his approach to leadership.While he may not publicly acknowledge that independence is not in sight, he must know this and needs to be explicit that a referendum is not going to happen any time soon. 

The Herald: First Minister John Swinney and Deputy First Minister John Swinney with the CabinetFirst Minister John Swinney appointed Kate Forbes to his Cabinet with all members of Humza Yousaf's Cabinet remaining.   Photo PA.

"That will require strong and the kind of mature leadership the SNP has lacked for a long time.  He has hinted at recognising that independence is off the immediate agenda with reference to his emphasis on the economy and child poverty.  The removal of a minister for independence is further evidence of facing realities. 

"But he needs to go much further and be explicit that independence is off the agenda.  That does not mean the SNP abandons independence but to get through the next two years it will be necessary be clear and unambiguous that independence has had to be parked."

He added: "He needs to really turn his attention to tackling Scotland’s economic and social problems and stop falling back on blaming London for the Scottish Government’s failings. 

"The SNP gradually lost its reputation for competence under Sturgeon and it will be very difficult to regain that reputation without very significant changes.  The list of failures are now well known and recognised across a wide range of policy areas from the environment, transport, health, education and economy.  He needs a strong team of ministers to do this and that would require significant change at the top.

"In acknowledging that independence is no longer in sight he no longer needs to rely on the Greens.  But minority Government requires particular leadership skills. The other parties will need to be convinced that independence is explicitly off the agenda and that the SNP is serious in tackling Scotland’s weak economy and addressing child poverty if minority Government is to work. 

"We can probably assume he will be more competent than Humza Yousaf and the Cabinet the inclusion of Kate Forbes, who is head and shoulders above the rest of the cabinet, means that there is at least one highly Cabinet Secretary. 

"But John Swinney showed weakness in not taking advantage of the opportunity to refresh the Cabinet.  Kate Forbes is likely to be marginalised in a Cabinet of Sturgeon-loyalists schooled in the politics of pronouncements and promises when emphasis needs to be on delivery.  The economic and fiscal challenges will require hard choices that have been postponed over far too long.  This will not be easy especially with this weak Cabinet."

Professor Mitchell continued: "Following his previous period as leader he acknowledged that he was not cut out for leadership.  He needs to show leadership in a way that was absent last time and in these early days of his leadership he has shown some signs that he knows what is needed but has been weak in delivering on what he knows is necessary. 

"He needs to be much bolder than he has been so far.  The days when the SNP could get away with spin and selfies are over."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Since the Scottish Government came to office, productivity and GDP per head have grown faster than the UK as a whole. The measures we are taking will keep an estimated 100,000 children out of poverty this year and Scotland has the best performing core A and E units in the UK.

“The Scottish Government also has a mandate to provide the information people need to make an informed choice about their future and work on updating the independence prospectus will therefore continue.

“The Scottish Government has published detailed evidence showing comparable independent countries to Scotland are wealthier and fairer than the UK but the First Minister has been clear that differences over Scotland’s future should not prevent collaborative working on shared priorities.”