Former health secretary Shona Robison has returned to Nicola Sturgeon’s Cabinet after a spell on the backbenches, as the SNP leader seeks to infuse her top team with loyal and trusted figures.
A close personal friend of the first minister who rose through the ranks of the SNP youth wing along with Ms Sturgeon and departing culture secretary Fiona Hyslop, Ms Robison becomes cabinet secretary for social justice, housing and local government.
The 54-year-old was first elected through the Additional Member System as an MSP for North East Scotland among the so-called 1999 Club of representatives returned as the country voted in its own parliament for the first time in 300 years.
Her then-husband Stewart Hosie, who would go on to become an SNP MP for Dundee East in 2005 and later deputy SNP leader, was at the time the party’s national secretary and the couple were known as an important fixture of the local political scene.
In 2003, Ms Robison became the party’s health spokeswoman and was appointed public health minister after the SNP’s victory at the 2007 Scottish Parliament election.
She continued to work on the brief until 2011, when she became the minister for the Commonwealth Games and sport, before being promoted to cabinet secretary for the Commonwealth Games, sport, equalities and pensioners’ rights in 2014.
She would only stay in the role for a few months and it was in Nicola Sturgeon’s first ministerial reshuffle in November 2014 that she was promoted to health secretary.
A torrid tenure
Ms Robison endured an at-times torrid tenure in the job that saw opposition parties repeatedly call for head over a number of scandals and leadership debacles.
She faced the loudest calls to go after failing to get to grips with a financial crisis at NHS Tayside after it was revealed directors at the cash-strapped health board had dipped into charity donations from the public to cover general spending.
It emerged in March 2018 that £5.3 million of money intended for eHealth funding had been used to make the health board’s deficit appear better than it really was.
It was then revealed that in 2014 a sum of money from NHS Tayside’s endowment fund, reported to be at least £2.71 million, had been used to pay for a new IT system.
A large chunk of the cash, typically used to fund patient comforts or furnish day suites for families, was used to bankroll digital healthcare after a financial deficit was discovered in NHS Tayside’s 2013-14 balance sheet.
The scandal prompted Ms Robison to call for former chairman Professor John Connell to resign, which he did that April. NHS Tayside later confirmed it would repay the money.
In a further debacle shortly before she resigned, the health secretary admitted legislation would need to be redrawn after we highlighted anomalies in the Minimum Unit Pricing rules just weeks after they came into force.
We revealed how the Scottish Government paid thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash for Minimum Unit Pricing guidance that put retailers “at risk of prosecution” and how she had been warned weeks earlier of the issues.
Ms Robison was also heavily criticised for presiding over GP shortages and a raft of failures over waiting times, mental health, A&E and social care.
A challenging year
She later revealed that strains in her personal life contributed to her decision to step down as health secretary, citing a health scare and the death of her parents as factors in quitting the Cabinet.
In 2016, the mother-of-one split from her Dundee East MP husband Stewart Hosie shortly before newspaper reports emerged about his private life.
In her resignation letter to Nicola Sturgeon, she wrote: “As you know this last year has been particularly challenging for me personally, losing both my parents, having a health scare of my own, and some big changes in my personal life.
“I thank you for your support during these difficult times and I feel that I have reached a point in my life just now where I would be best to step down from a role in Government.
“I have entered a new chapter of my life, including a new relationship, where it would be good to take time to focus on those closest to me, who have too often had to come second place to my job, which has been hard for us all.”
Ms Robison’s “health scare” is understood to relate to being recalled for a breast screening at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.
In an interview with Holyrood Magazine, she described going through “all the fears” over the screening, before later being cleared.
“You know, when I arrived home and opened the letter, I expected it to say, ‘we’ll see you in another few years’, and when it said, ‘we need to see you again’, it catches your breath,” she said.
“You think, ‘oh my God’ and the leaflets come and you read through them and your mind takes over, as it would for any woman in that situation.”
While Ms Robison’s time in the health brief saw her endure fierce criticism from political rivals, senior Conservative Jackson Carlaw, then the party’s deputy leader in Scotland, paid tribute to her commitment in the role as she stepped down.
Mr Carlaw said that Ms Robison had “not had troubles to seek” – a nod to the difficulties her private life – but added that the former health secretary was “enormously committed to the NHS” and “tremendously well-briefed on health issues”.
Former NHS Tayside chairman Professor John Connell said that because the chief executive of NHS Scotland reports directly to the health secretary, it is “almost as if the cabinet secretary is acting as the chief executive of the NHS in Scotland.”
He said that had left Ms Robison in a difficult position and resulted in her being blamed for “every single minor error that happens” which, he added, “isn’t right”.
Ms Robison was returned for a fifth time earlier this month with one of the largest majorities in Scotland after securing nearly 60% of the vote and finishing with 13,337 more votes than her closest rival, Scottish Labour’s Owen Wright.
Speaking at the time, she noted how much time has passed since she was first elected as a constituency MSP in 2003 while pregnant with her daughter, who was able to vote for the first time in May’s election.
Ms Robison said her time away from Cabinet had given her time to work in her Dundee City East constituency but the MSP is now set to divide her time again after being tasked with reducing child poverty and delivering 10,000 affordable homes.