Cameron plans his own back-room deal with the DUP

But Ken Clarke warns: “It’s not the way to run a modern sophisticated society.”

David Cameron is fond of denouncing the "secret back-room deals" that he claims electoral reform would encourage. But, if we're to believe today's Telegraph, a back-room deal with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party is exactly what Cameron is planning in the event of a hung parliament.

The Conservatives have already established a formal alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party, but after a recent opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph suggested that the party will struggle to win more than a couple of seats (it has no MPs at present) the Tories have been forced to look elsewhere.

The DUP, currently the fourth largest party in the Commons, could be expected to deliver an extra nine or ten seats for Cameron. But there will be a price and the DUP is demanding that, at the very least, the Tories cancel £200m worth of cuts to Northern Ireland's public sector.

One Tory who, with typical frankness, has already expressed his dismay at the possibility of such a back-room deal is Ken Clarke. In an interview with politics.co.uk he said: "What we're plainly headed for would be a great deal of squabbling, with small parties given disproportionate influence, trying to manoeuvre advantages for themselves before they allow a Conservative government to get on with the job."

He added:

If I have to sit and talk to three or four other groups . . . in the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it's not the way to run a modern sophisticated society [our emphasis].

That Cameron may finally be reduced to doing just that again exposes the falseness of the Tory leader's claim that the first-past-the-post system guarantees "strong government".

But more seriously, if Cameron gets into bed with the DUP as well as the Ulster Unionists, how can he ever hope to act as an honest broker in Northern Ireland?

 

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George Eaton is political 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.