Michael Moore’s time to shine

The Scottish Secretary has been quietly effective until now. But how will Michael Moore cope with Al

"You! You should know better!" is how Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, recalls me greeting him when he first arrived in parliament, newly elected, and several years after we had first worked together as researchers.

And it's true. I can't bear it when friends of mine stand for parliament. I go out of my way to dissuade them. I hate watching them being torn apart in the media or in that vile snakepit, the Commons chamber. I would like all my friends to live cocooned in safe, secure obscurity. But with Mike, as with some others, I have been proved wrong.

He is the least-known Lib Dem in the cabinet, elevated to it after the David Laws fallout last year. Of all the politicians I know, he remains the person whose feet are most firmly on the ground. Just as well, considering his height.

He has been criticised for being too cautious. Some Scottish Liberal Democrats would like him to go on the attack more often, but that is simply not his style. Mike is not from the Flashman school of politics and to criticise him for that is unfair. He is not in this game for the thrill – he is there to get results and make a difference.

Value judgement

In this, he reminds me of Alistair Darling, whom most people can barely remember from the early years of his career, but who by the end of 13 years in cabinet had widespread respect. Like Darling, Mike is bright, pays attention to detail, and has grown into the job.

His tireless campaigning in the recent Scottish Parliament election campaign has won him a lot of respect in the Scottish party. He will need to rely on that as Alex Salmond attempts to drive a wedge between Moore in Westminster and the new Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader, Willie Rennie. But Mike and Willie know each other well, get on, and understand the way this will work.

I loved a recent story about some hoo-ha on a political scandal-mongering website. Michael's name was in the frame. He walked into the Scotland Office unable to find any of his key staff. Eventually he found them in a meeting room worrying about how to rebut the story. "We know it isn't true, so can we just on with the real job at hand," he said. Typical Michael.

When he was stung like Vince Cable by the Telegraph's honeytrap, not only were his answers great, but he didn't hide away. Instead, he went on air and justified standing up for Liberal Democrat values.

But Moore now faces a critical test. With a single party in power, since the SNP's unexpected outright election victory, the Scotland Office is in a pivotal position between the UK government and the Scottish Executive.

He has been thrust further into the limelight, as the Scotland Bill must now go through Holyrood for a second time. Its first passage was supported by the SNP, but the second passage is an obvious opportunity for First Minister Salmond to start flexing his muscles.

Hot potato

The potential for meltdown between Westminster and Holyrood is significant, but Moore has taken this in his stride, turning the tables on the Scottish government and rightly asking it for a detailed case for the changes they want. After all, he delivered a Scotland Bill where Labour produced only a white paper and the Tory manifesto promised not much more.

But what looked like a substantial package of new powers, likely to get though without controversy, has become a hot potato with the spectre of an eventual independence referendum looming.

Labour and the Tories won't want much in the way of further devolution in the House of Commons, making Michael's strategic role all the more significant. His accountant's mind has the forensic abilities to navigate this difficult bill. And he has a calm and reassuring Commons style that is a tribute to his Presbyterian minister father.

During the final years of Labour's rule in Westminster, Alistair Darling faced up to Gordon Brown, in the interests not of his party, but his country. Michael Moore has the ability and the character to do the same . . . whether facing Westminster or Holyrood.

The fifth man is stepping into the light.

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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.