WHAT’S wrong with rural affairs? Supporters of Kate Forbes who criticised the lowly portfolio offered to the recent finance secretary should maybe think twice or even thrice before speaking again.

A centralising SNP have had difficulty persuading folk outside the central belt (and that’s most Scots) that it takes their lives and problems seriously – especially the shameful reality of chronic land shortage in a country of land plenty. Unresolved feudalism and land banking by absentee owners has stifled population growth, house-building, and the ability of rural Scotland to make the most of tourism, with Brexit-related staff shortages the collective tin-lid. Rural Scotland helps Scotland reach net-zero targets and could help the whole country achieve food security given some imagination and the decentralisation of power oft promised by the SNP.

So, to hear this massive portfolio dismissed as some insulting, minor kind of Siberia posting for Kate Forbes reaffirms the suspicion held by many that independence would simply give city-centric SNP leaders carte blanche to ignore everyone else.

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Now, to be fair, it was a supporter, former MSP Alex Neil, who called Forbes’s proposed new role an “insult”. Kate herself tweeted: “To the great credit of Humza, the first official conversation he had after the result was with me. He has been respectful, supportive and warm throughout. In whatever capacity I serve, I’ll support him. PS after five long weeks I’ll be delighted to see more of my family.”

Read between the lines, add the fact Kate is mother to three step-children as well as her own new bairn, a pre-result announcement that she wouldn’t be running for the leadership again and that relieved, beatific smile when the result was announced, and you might conclude Kate has considered her options and decided to take a different tack in life. Which is perfectly fine.

Of course, reading between the lines is always a dodgy business – but Ms Forbes spent a day considering a post that might have given her a better work/life balance before rejecting it. If that offer was an insult, I’m sure it would have been rejected on the spot.

The National: SNP’s Kate Forbes arrives at the main chamber for the vote for the new First Minister at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Picture date: Tuesday March 28, 2023.

Having occupied the biggest job in government besides first minister, any new post represented “demotion” for Forbes. If she was offered the health portfolio, Yousaf would stand accused of handing a certified poisoned chalice to his rival.

So why not just keep her in the finance post?

Firstly, she might not have fancied it for the personal reasons listed above – and for some obvious political ones.

How would it work to have two politicians who defined themselves so differently during the leadership campaign – one essentially an economic conservative, the other a redistributionist social democrat – trying to present one coherent vision to Scotland without undermining one another? Indeed, remaining as finance secretary might have given Forbes the worst of all worlds – losing the leadership battle only to keep a highly visible, demanding government job and accepting collective responsibility for decisions we all now know she opposes, working with the Scottish Greens – a party she would have been happy to see quit government the minute she walked in. There’s challenging and there’s ouch.

The resignation of trade and business minister Ivan McKee is perhaps more significant. McKee said: “I am the only person in government who has business experience. It is immensely frustrating having to talk to businesses every day and listen to their problems without have the ability to actually do anything about it.” It sounds as if pre-existing frustrations combined with the removal of ministerial responsibilities made Yousaf’s offer decidedly unappealing.

In the wake of Forbes’s departure, retaining McKee should have been a top priority – he would doubtless have been Forbes’s finance secretary had she won.

If Ivan is not for turning, Humza could have considered Michelle Thomson – Forbes’s campaign manager, MSP for Falkirk East and co-founder of a change management business with Professor Roger Mullin – to have some Team Kate and business-friendly presence in government.

That hasn’t happened.

The National: Angela Constance, Minister for Drug Policy arrives for First Minster's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday June 23, 2022..

All those appointed to Cabinet posts yesterday backed Yousaf on the campaign trail with the exception of Angela Constance (above) who did not publicly support anyone.

Grand that it’s the first female-majority Cabinet with a younger average age than the Sturgeon cabinet they replace. But sometime soon, Yousaf needs to get out and explain their collective new direction of travel, otherwise the “failure” narrative currently ringing round the press, opposition politicians and disappointed supporters of rival candidates will just get entrenched.

The biggest problem with losing Forbes and McKee from the Cabinet is not just the message it sends to business but also to the wider public – many of whom preferred the Skye and Lochalsh MSP.

Now, of course, that simple fact doesn’t explain precisely what the public most liked about Forbes.

It could’ve been her economic emphasis on wealth creation, her controversial criticism of the SNP’s existing record as mediocre, her stance on moral issues or her bold, no-nonsense and at times confrontational demeanour.

We’ll never quite know, but that doesn’t mean Yousaf should give up trying to represent her “corner” in government. Not least because a substantial chunk of the public and party think it’s their corner too and excluding critical voices is decidedly old-school SNP.

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Likewise with Ash Regan. Her decision to rock the boat over membership figures damaged the impression of party unity but also removed a controversial “legacy” CEO and got bad news about membership losses into the public domain instead of hovering in the background, waiting to be revealed.

Regan is not in the Cabinet, but it would be a mistake to ignore her campaign for internal democracy and an independence convention – especially with a “continuity” Deputy FM and Finance Secretary in the shape of Shona Robison, and the prospect of a new chief executive when Mike Russell steps down again on Saturday and the party’s NEC decides its next steps.

Not including anyone from Teams Kate or Ash or at least someone sympathetic to the case for a reboot of corporate, top-down SNP party structures in government will invite further media and membership hostility and at the very least demands a proper explanation of strategy – not just sweeping appointments under the carpet and hoping they’ll be forgotten by the time parliament resumes after Easter.

In short, Humza must stand up for himself.

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Doubtless the new SNP leader was right not get into a slagging match when Forbes listed his “failures” during a TV debate.

But he did need to respond. There was a case to be made about each charge levied, but since it wasn’t, the “failure” tag has stuck.

And now it’s happening again with a “failure” to keep Teams Kate and Ash on board.

If it’s too grubby for the First Minister to create an alternative narrative about his new government, then someone else should. It’s a pivotal moment.

I hope Humza – fresh from weeks of hustings – keeps that public reality uppermost in his thinking. He and his government are relatively unknown elements.

So he needs to keep talking, keep explaining and get Green coalition partners to do the same.