10 ways to avoid Guff in tonight’s debates (please)

Election 2010: Guffwatch!

1. The basics. Brown, don't say the word "future". Cambo (why hasn't that caught on?), don't say the word "society". Clegg, don't say the word "Vince".

2. No one say the word "progressive".

3. Cambo (I'm sticking with it), if you say the phrase "broken society" you have to give, out of your own pocket, everyone in the audience a fiver just for being so darn rude. And you also have to give everyone you want to take part in the "big society" a chocolate bar to make them feel better about being broken. I presume that's all of us.

4. Pretend you're talking to your virtually-anonymous-and-rarely-photographed wives. Maybe that will make you sound more human. (If not, I'm really worried about the state of your pillow-talk.)

5. Say something we haven't heard before. Yes, that's right! Something new, unscripted, witty, fun, genuine. If this provokes a sudden and unexpected nervous breakdown you probably aren't the right bloke for the job anyway.

6. Imagine that every time you say the word "vision", you lose half a million viewers.

7. Tell a knock-knock joke.

8. Start swearing compulsively.

9. Suddenly, and inexplicably, rip off your tie.

10. Don't say anything at all! Maintain a vow of sturdy and stubborn silence. You will immediately be adored by the entire population of the United Kingdom and win as many votes as Hamid Karzai.

My predictions: Brown will self-combust halfway through. Remember that scene in The Witches where Anjelica Huston turns into a rat with green smoke coming out of her ears? A bit like that. Cambo will become oddly sweaty on that sizeable forehead of his (favourite NS quote of all time? Clive James: "There's something about David Cameron that bothers me -- those features of his are still waiting to turn into a face") and will suddenly start weeping for no reason, tears and perspiration mixing in an unholy soup. Oh, and Clegg. You know what? I think old Clegg might do pretty well out of all this.

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Sophie Elmhirst is features 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.