Do the Lib Dems still have a voice, or have they been smothered?

David Cameron should allow his coalition partners room to breathe.

The Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron's outspoken and open comments on BBC Radio's World at One, in which he said that his party is providing "cover" for the "toxic" Tories, give a rare glimpse of the mindset of quite a few Lib Dem parliamentarians, many of whom are starting to think about their seats amid tumbling poll ratings.

Farron, to be fair, has always believed that the coalition is an awkward ideological fit, but a number of other Lib Dems at Westminster are beginning to wonder how their party will get out of its apparent identity crisis, and dread next year's local elections.

On the same programme, the Lib Dem deputy leader, Simon Hughes, admits that his party has struggled to outline "distinctive policies" so far. Which brings us to a wider point.

Where exactly are the Lib Dem cabinet ministers? Where is Chris Huhne? Indeed, where is Vince Cable? Do they feel scared to speak out? If so, David Cameron -- who held his first "political cabinet" today -- had better address the issue and grant them more space to express themselves.

The coalition is, as Hughes has said, a "risk". But it will only work if the Lib Dems in it have a voice. Otherwise, there will be many more Tim Farrons protesting out there.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.