Resignations, Reshuffles and Rising Stars

Kate Forbes and Rishi Sunak were promoted to occupy the leading finance roles north and south of the border following recent reshuffles. Both represent a new generation in their party ranks and face big challenges as they attempt to master their new role in government.

“Need a hand with the budget?”, Kate Forbes jokingly asked the UK Government following the resignation of the Chancellor Sajid Javid last week. She was of course speaking from experience, having had precious little time to prepare before stepping up to unveil the Scottish Government’s Budget following the shock resignation of Derek Mackay.

In difficult circumstances, Forbes performed exceptionally well under pressure in the chamber – thankfully, she doesn’t suffer from the robotic delivery that plagued her predecessor – and has already provided evidence to Holyrood’s Finance Committee. Having faced up to those immediate tasks, the First Minister duly promoted her to Finance Secretary earlier this week alongside other new appointments to the Scottish Government.

Down at Westminster, Rishi Sunak was appointed Chancellor in the Prime Minister’s reshuffle and also faces a similar steep learning curve. Sunak was a very capable Chief Secretary to the Treasury and is highly regarded in Number 10, even stepping in for Boris Johnson during some of the televised election debates last year.

Forbes and Sunak previously occupied junior finance roles in government, and may have only entered parliament in 2016 and 2015 respectively, but both are young, talented and highly-regarded politicians with the intellectual capabilities to cope with the pressure. While the precise timing of their elevation was unexpected, it was only a matter of when they would occupy a more senior position.

In fact, the similarities between do not end there: they both come from middle class families with parents in the medical profession, were beneficiaries of an Oxbridge education, and spent time in the private sector before entering politics (although one career was significantly more lucrative than the other).

However, there are contrasts in terms of the challenges facing the two. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer has around three weeks to swot up ahead of his big speech in the chamber, offering a bit more time than the hours afforded to his Scottish counterpart. He will address the Commons on 11 March to deliver the UK Budget.

Politically speaking, Sunak also holds another advantage: unlike the minority SNP administration at Holyrood, who rely on the opposition to pass their Budget, Boris Johnson was elected with a huge majority at the recent UK General Election. Gone are the days of the knife-edge votes that characterised the May premiership.

Meanwhile, Kate Forbes faces the unenviable task of navigating the Scottish Government’s Budget through the various parliamentary hurdles at Holyrood, with the SNP requiring the support of at least one opposition party to pass their Budget Bill. In previous years, they have relied on the Scottish Greens.

Over the weeks ahead, it will be intriguing to see how Kate Forbes and Rishi Sunak deal with the demands of their new jobs – and indeed how the two rising stars interact with each other at a time of increasing tensions between Number 10 and Bute House.