The four big tests for Nick Clegg

And tuition fees is not among them.

No sooner had the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition been created on 11 May than people start asking how long would it last -- and how long would Nick Clegg be part of it?

Ladbrokes, at least, believes that the current Lib Dem leader is likely to be there at the next general election, nominally on 7 May 2015. The bookmaker is offering a less-than-generous 1/3 that he will still be in place, and 2/1 that he will have been replaced.

All of which prompts Mike Smithson over at PoliticalBetting to ask what would prompt -- or force -- Clegg to stand down before 2015. For starters, Smithson identifies four upcoming tests over the next six months:

For Clegg a lot could depend on three elections in the next six months - the [Oldham and Saddleworth] by election, the English locals and the Scottish and Welsh votes on May 5th and, of course, the AV referendum on the same day.

And concludes:

If the yellows beat expectations in just one of those then I think that he's safe.

An October YouGov poll put the Lib Dems on 8 per cent among the Holyrood electorate, while just a third of UK voters are in favour of the alternative vote. So perhaps expectations are already being managed downwards, albeit inadvertently. A heroic failure to see the AV referendum through or something less than wipeout in any of the array of forthcoming elections will strengthen, not weaken, the Lib Dem leader. Perhaps.

One area that Smithson doesn't touch on directly, but that has tested Clegg's authority, is university funding -- and likely for good reason. Last Wednesday's protests and those at 30 Millbank on 10 November offer a measure of the disquiet out there, but do nothing to change the parliamentary arithmetic.

It's true that some 31 Lib Dem MPs -- all of whom have significant numbers of student voters in their constituencies -- may rebel against plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 per year. However, in order to defeat the government a rump of Tory backbenchers would need to join them -- and that is not going to happen.

So, tuition fees don't present an immediate danger to Clegg and the coalition but they have made him public enemy number one among a significant constituency of voters. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Tim Montgomerie notes:

There is also anger about U-turns on nuclear power and the pace of deficit reduction. [Clegg] needs to remind voters that he forced Tory concessions, too - a voting system referendum and dropped commitments to cut inheritance tax, reform human rights laws and upgrade the Trident nuclear deterrent.

But those hoping that Labour can capitalise on Clegg's woes are likely to be disappointed. As Montgomerie rightly points out, Labour's attack has been blunted by divisions between leader Ed Miliband and "enforcer" Alan Johnson:

Ed Miliband should be facing an open goal - but standing between the posts is Alan Johnson. The Labour leader wants a graduate tax - an extra levy on those with a degree - to which his shadow chancellor is completely opposed. In an open letter to Mr Miliband, shortly before accepting his new role, he wrote: "For goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees."

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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.