A good week for Gordon Brown

Three pieces of good news for Brown

So, despite the vehement campaign against him by Britain's biggest-selling daily paper, this has turned into a good week for Gordon Brown. It may have been unthinkable for Labour not to win last night's by-election in Glasgow North-East, a seat it has held for 74 years, but few expected the party to triumph by the margin it did.

The by-election victory was the third piece of good news Brown has had this week. First, a Times/Populus poll on Tuesday demonstrated that a hung parliament remains a distinct possibility at the next election. The Conservatives' lead of 10 points would translate into a Commons majority of only two.

Second, a PoliticsHome poll revealed that 65 per cent of voters believe the Sun's reporting of Brown's letter to Jacqui Janes became an "inappropriate attack", and that almost half of the electorate is now more inclined to defend the Prime Minister.

Perhaps buoyed by these figures and the by-election success, Brown gave the most articulate and fluid performance I've heard from him for weeks on the Today programme this morning.

Professor John Curtice noted the key to Labour's success last night when he observed: "They fought as the opposition to the SNP." But he provided a sober dose of reality when he pointed out: "The recipe for success in Glasgow is not one that can be repeated in England and Wales."

Lord Mandelson and Harriet Harman have attempted to mount an insurgent campaign by consistently referring to Labour as the "underdog". But in England at least, the party continues to be seen as the establishment.

In order to change this, Labour must gamble on a referendum on electoral reform before the next election. The Conservatives remain wedded to the unjust first-past-the-post system. Perhaps on this issue alone, David Cameron would be left defending the status quo.

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.