PMQs review: the Budget hands Miliband an easy win

Cameron is still unable to defend much of his Chancellor's Budget.

The first PMQs since the Budget was, unsurprisingly, an easy win for Ed Miliband. David Cameron struggled to defend his decision to cut the 50p tax rate and quickly attempted to change the subject to unemployment, which fell by 35,000 (0.1 per cent) in the last quarter. But as the PM admitted later in the session, unemployment remains "far too high" - today's figures were nothing to boast about. Cameron's intervention merely gifted Miliband another opportunity to brand him as "out-of-touch". As he said, figures that show more than one million young people unemployed are no cause for celebration.

From then on, every time the Labour leader raised an unpopular measure from the calamitous Budget ["even people within Downing Street calling it an 'omnishambles,'" he quipped] - the 50p tax cut, "the granny tax", "the charity tax" - the PM turned to the subject of Ken Livingstone's tax avoidance. But while this story is disastrous for Livingstone, it has done little damage to Miliband. It did, however, highlight just how valuable Cameron believes the re-election of Boris Johnson would be for the Tories. A victory for Johnson would overshadow all of the disasters of the last month.

Perhaps the most significant moment came when Miliband branded George Osborne a "part-time" Chancellor - the first time he's used this line. "I wonder which job he's doing today, Mr Speaker?", he asked, a reference to Osborne's dual-role as Chancellor and the Tories' chief election strategist. Aware of how damaging this charge is, Cameron looked furious. If it sticks, Osborne could be permanently damaged.

Ed Miliband branded George Osborne a "part-time Chancellor". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.