How did John Swinney survive the schools results row?

By Glenn Campbell
Chief political correspondent, BBC Scotland

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Mr Swinney is a trusted lieutenant of the first minister

John Swinney has kept his job as Scotland's education secretary despite opposition attempts at Holyrood to force him out after the exams controversy.

A Labour motion of no confidence was defeated by 67 votes to 58 because Scottish Green Party MSPs sided with the SNP to give them a majority.

The Greens (who have an affinity with the SNP over independence) demanded a high price for their support - a dramatic and complete U-turn on exam results from the Scottish government.

Mr Swinney acceded to all their demands by cancelling 125,000 downgrades, allowing upgraded students to keep their awards, ordering an independent review into the debacle and promising a wider look at the best way to assess pupil performance.

That amounts to the most spectacular change of policy by any minister, in any Scottish administration, in the short history of devolution since 1999.

Ministers spent five days defending the exam system before caving in to pressure from pupils, parents and their political opponents.

Mr Swinney said he'd heard the anger of young people. He will also have been aware that he was in danger of losing the confidence vote unless he shifted position.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Some pupils held protests over the downgraded exam results before Mr Swinney's u-turn

His opponents point out that his tenure as education secretary has not been a happy one.

He dropped high-profile education reform legislation, was forced to order a review of the curriculum amid concerns over standards and overturned his own plans for a part-time return to school after lockdown.

Throughout all of this he has retained the confidence and support of the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who relies on him heavily.

As her chosen deputy in government, Mr Swinney is a close and trusted ally and one of her most experienced ministers. Not someone she would want to lose or could easily replace.

That's especially the case in the middle of a pandemic, with difficult parliamentary hearings into the Scottish government's handling of complaints against Alex Salmond starting next week and a Holyrood election less than nine months away.

Opinion polls

The opposition are worried by the trends in opinion polls which suggest overwhelming support for the SNP and for Ms Sturgeon's leadership during the pandemic and majority support for independence.

The most recent poll of that sort was taken as the exams fiasco unfolded, leaving one Labour veteran "flabbergasted" that the SNP - in government for 13 years - seems to defy political gravity.

Ms Sturgeon is facing some dissent from within the SNP and the wider independence movement over her approach to indyref2 and her rift with Alex Salmond.

She has said she has nothing to fear from the forthcoming inquiry, that it's "bonkers" to question her commitment to independence and that there'll be an explicit commitment to another referendum in the 2021 manifesto.

Boris Johnson has consistently opposed another referendum and some nationalists want Ms Sturgeon to announce a plan B if he continues to refuses to allow indyref2 by agreement.

These arguments all lie ahead for Nicola Sturgeon. In the meantime, she insists her focus is on dealing with the pandemic and the many crises it has caused.

On education, she's sought to make a virtue of admitting a mistake and correcting it while the Conservatives at Westminster and Labour in Wales continue to defend moderating teacher estimates in the exam systems for which they are responsible.