The Lib Dems' money woes are growing

Clegg's party might need a spell in opposition just to balance the books.

The Electoral Commission has published its accounts of political party income and expenditure. The table showing the financial state of health of the top 14 - the ones that get £250,000 or more - is available here.

The item that has made a few headlines is the drop in income for the Tories. The party's takings were down by 45 per cent on the previous year - now at the same level they were last at in 2003. That's wilderness income. Of course, the Conservative coffers will fill up again as an election approaches. They always do. But the fall in revenue might also reflect disquiet among big donors at negative publicity attached to the status of being seen to be a Cameron crony (especially after this incident) and irritation at the party leadership's willingness to indulge media bashing of bankers, high pay and fat-cattery.  The Telegraph's Ben Brogan wrote a column earlier this week suggesting donors were sniffing around Boris Johnson as a friendlier protege.

Labour also received less than last year but, thanks to the trade unions, the party's funding stream is a little more stable (although there is a political price to be paid for that dependency ... the subject of another much longer blog another time).

One thing that caught my eye in this year's accounts though was the perennial shortage of cash felt by the Lib Dems. They take in a fraction of the sums enjoyed by the big two and, unlike their rivals, spend more than they earn. One of the cruelties of coalition for the Lib Dems is that power has not suddenly opened up new exciting financing opportunities. Joining the governing big league has not granted entry to some exclusive high rolling donors club. Meanwhile, the party has lost the "short money" made available by the state to official opposition parties. And to make matters worse, Lib Dem councillors traditionally chip in around 10 per cent of their allowances to help fund the party. So the massacres in local elections in recent years have put a further squeeze on income. The Lib Dems, in other words, are utterly broke.

One senior Labour figure recently suggested to me that this would ultimately be the factor that breaks the coalition. The Lib Dems, this theory goes, will have to quit the government a year or so before an election so they can get their short money back. Without it they simply wouldn't be able to mount a campaign. Now that could be spite and mischief from the enemy camp (the shadow cabinet figure involved is no admirer of the Cleggists) but senior Lib Dems themselves don't deny privately that they have serious money woes. Maybe staying in government to the very bitter end will prove a luxury they can't afford.

Entering government has cost Clegg's party money as well as votes. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.