As of today, Humza Yousaf faces two fundamental and related challenges: how to placate the voters over the Matheson clanjamfrie; and how to convince those same voters that his new Cabinet team will work effectively. Of the two, the challenge raised by Cabinet effectiveness is by far the more significant. Politics can be brutal and folk will swiftly forget Michael Matheson.

Quite rightly and inevitably, the public focus will revert to the issue of delivery. Most notably, on the health service and the economy. Still, it is fitting to offer at least a passing thought upon the resignation of the Health Secretary.

It has been said – not least in his own departure letter and the response from the First Minister – that he has sought to be a diligent and dedicated public servant. I would not demur from that. He has always struck me as being thoughtful and focused upon the task in hand, if faintly subdued.

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Senior Ministerial office brings long hours, endless challenges and, at best, qualified praise. Still, he had to go. Indeed, he should have quit before now.

It would seem at least likely that he received a hint with regard to the pending investigation by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body into his data roaming charges. Or he discerned the direction of travel.

Admittedly, the circumstances are somewhat bizarre. (It is to be hoped his sons enjoyed the match on costly global telly). But Mr Matheson dissembled, arguably to protect his family. From that moment, his departure was inevitable. These things have a rhythm, a pattern. A political choreography of their own. The event, the explanation, the endorsement from the leader – and then the steady unravelling. Finally, the resignation. The customary phrase is “avoid being a distraction” or “do not want to become the story”. Either way, the subject succumbs.

To be quite clear, this is no longer about Mr Matheson. Let us wish him, personally, good wishes and such comfort as he can muster. Rather, this is about the next phase of Humza Yousaf’s government. His own standing. His reshaped team. And, above all, progress or otherwise on the issues which matter to the public – the economy and public services.

Let us consider firstly the health service. It is not, frankly, in an ideal condition. I do not believe that money alone will fix it: that will require significant reform. That task now falls to Neil Gray, a close ally of the FM and a highly regarded Minister.

He will be only too well aware that circumstances afford him little time in which to make an impact. The permanent fever of politics is currently heated still further by an impending election, albeit to Westminster rather than Holyrood. Opponents have clearly linked Mr Matheson’s departure to the wider reputation of the government.

For example, Alex Cole Hamilton of the Liberal Democrats said the NHS was “on its knees”. For the Tories, Douglas Ross said the First Minister’s own reputation was “in tatters”. He followed that with a keynote speech setting out plans to enhance GP services. Labour’s Anas Sarwar made the swiftest move from the individual to the generic. He dismissed Mr Matheson in a sentence – before warning that NHS problems would not be solved by one resignation.

And the FM? A twin approach. Lauding past endeavours – such as avoiding industrial action in the NHS. And insisting that Scotland’s record compared favourably to “Tory-run England and Labour-run Wales.” By definition, it is somewhat weak to rely upon such comparisons. (“OK, we’re struggling, but they’re worse.”) However, it may work, to a degree, with the public.

Even as Douglas Ross was excoriating health provision in Scotland, there emerged figures saying that cancer waiting times in England for 2023 were the worst on record. On his party’s watch. Folk in Scotland get that message. Again, to a degree. The Welsh (and, thus, Labour) comparison is likely to be less effective simply because it gets fewer mentions on the telly.

The Herald: Màiri McAllanMàiri McAllan (Image: free)

Perhaps the biggest immediate challenge facing Mr Gray will be in the provision of care, rather than health. Might he further modify plans for a national care service? Either way, it is the core to alleviating pressure on the NHS. In his departing letter, Mr Matheson noted: “Strong and consistent leadership over the coming year will be necessary to ensure we enhance performance and drive down patient waiting times.” Quite.

Then there is the economy, the remit relinquished by Neil Gray. It is now to be handled by Màiri McAllan. A former special adviser, she has quickly built a formidable reputation and is highly rated. She too faces an immediate challenge. The Scottish and UK economies are sluggish at best. Further, in Scotland, the business sector feels sidelined. They worry that the focus is not truly on growth, despite the ambitions of the Scottish Government’s ten-year programme.

Neil Gray addressed that concern. The FM noted that he had “reset” the relationship with business. But Ms McAllan will have to go further. Frankly, there may be apprehension in the business sector that her remit now combines the economy with her net zero responsibilities. Figures in business – figures on the SNP back benches – already fret that the government focus is driven too much by a Green Party programme. There may be concerns that the economic growth agenda will be swamped.

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To be clear, business is far from hostile to net zero. Key firms are seeking to deliver. However, they – and, again, senior SNP figures – want to see a blend of environmental and economic aims. This is not just business nerves. There is substantive criticism here. Audit Scotland has warned that the Scottish Government’s ten-year strategy “lacks collective political leadership and clear targets.”

That plan was launched in March 2022 by Kate Forbes – now sitting on the back benches, gently dissenting. The aim was a “well-being economy”, driven by growth and entrepreneurship. The “well-being” bit has survived, albeit with sundry definitions. But Audit Scotland says the government machine is not fully in gear – and warns that making such an economic shift while hiking tax “is a substantial challenge.” The response to that challenge will define the new team.