Boris fires a warning shot at Cameron over police cuts

Cameron looked uneasy as Boris vowed not to let police numbers fall below a "safe" level.

Boris Johnson's speech to the Conservative conference wasn't one of his most memorable. The hall was half empty (security arrangements delayed many) and there were fewer jokes than usual. But the London Mayor fired a notable warning shot at David Cameron over police cuts. He vowed that he would "not allow police numbers to fall below a number that I believe is safe and reasonable". As Boris made his pledge, the camera cut to Cameron, who looked distinctly uneasy, unable to join in with the applause from the floor.

But with this exception, the Mayor kept his powder dry. He did not repeat his attack on the 50p tax rate (one of his favourite dividing lines with Cameron), merely stressing the need for the "right tax and regulatory framework." He knowingly added, "I will say no more than that". Elsewhere, he praised the "much-maligned banks" for helping to support apprenticeship schemes in London but went no further in his defence of the "leper colony".

Yet even with fewer rhetorical pyrotechnics, Boris still charmed the hall. He repeated his amusing quip about calling a "snap Olympics" to "catch the world napping". He vowed to "recapture" the 18 Boris bikes that had gone missing. And, borrowing a Gandhian trope, he repeatedly promised to "put the village back in the city", a sentiment that seemed to resonate with the delegates. By the end, Cameron could not help looking slightly envious.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.