Political sketch: Cash-for-croutons

Dave's battering from the wrong side of Fleet Street.

When Harold Wilson came up with adage "a week is a long time in politics," he could not have imagined that a successor would reduce it to just three hours. Stand up David Cameron.

With the cash-for-croutons scandal leading the news for the second day in a row, the hapless, inaptly named, Paymaster General Francis Maude was trundled out onto the Today Programme at 8am this morning to try to draw a line under it.

He was to make it quite clear that the Prime Minister was standing firm and would not be naming who he had invited round to his place for dinner with him and Sam Cam, as this was a totally private matter.

But as what remained of Francis escaped into the street following disemboweling by Evan Davis. By then, it was already obvious this would not stand and so at 11am, a sweaty faced PM took advantage of a pre-booking at the Alzheimer's Society to cave in.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the real credit for this volte-face with Mr Davis -- or indeed Mr Maude. Instead, the final realization in Downing Street was that they had managed to fall out spectacularly with their traditional backers the Tory Press. It was only after they had digested the full severity of the attacks on their man this morning in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun that Cameron Camp accepted the game was up.

The Prime Minister has never been a family favourite among the more recidivist members of Fleet Street who much prefer the nouveau riche to the simply-riche like Dave. And their distrust has only grown over the eagerness with which he has embraced the link-up with the Lib Dems which he and they both know has helped keep the "hang 'em and flog 'em" approach to politics -- so beloved of their readers -- in check.

But even he was stung by the severity of the attacks this morning.

The Daily Mail, which ran a headline asking "Just why is Cameron such a terrible judge of character," questioned the appointment of Treasurer Cruddas and asked about his lack of judgement when it come to "spivs" with money.

It was the Mail which led the campaign to oust previous Tory Treasurer David Rowlands, who forked out £2.7m for the Party at the General Election, having said his appointment was being "viewed with alarm" following allegations about his business affairs. Editor Paul Dacre will have noted that Mr Rowlands was one of the "high value" guests now admitted by the Prime Minister to have sat at the Cameron table.

The Telegraph, up in arms since the Osborne cock-up over pensioners last week infuriated thousands of its readers, said the cumulative impression was "toxic" for the Tories.

Equally scathing was the Sun, who only a year ago was solidly pro-Cameron as he partied away with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. But that was before he was forced into the Leveson inquiry to head off the trouble cause by another of his character calls, making Andy Coulson his chief mouthpiece. The Sun asked if millions of voters will be wondering if the 50p tax rate was scrapped after "a few cosy lunches with millionaire backers".

Cameron will no doubt find a way out of this latest disaster as he has the rest, but the mistakes keep adding up.

He gambles on short memories and long traditions to bring the faithful -- and that includes his side of Fleet Street -- back on side come the election. But that assumes he will still be there and, as Margaret Thatcher found out, it isn't always a given.

Who's for dinner? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). 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 considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.