Osborne is drawn into the scandal

Rebekah Brooks confirms that it was George Osborne's idea to hire Andy Coulson.

After the earlier drama of Rupert and James Murdoch's appearance, there was little revelatory about Rebekah Brooks's time before the media select committee. But perhaps the key moment, politically speaking, came when Brooks confirmed that it was George Osborne's idea to appoint Andy Coulson as the Conservative Party's director of communications.

In doing so, she rebutted the claim, made today by Polly Toynbee, that Coulson was a News International plant. She told MPs: "The allegation is I told the Prime Minister to hire Andy Coulson. The idea came from George Osborne." For the first time since the Milly Dowler story broke, the Chancellor has been directly named by one of the dramatis personae of the scandal. It was already widely known that he headhunted Coulson; what's significant is that Brooks has now put this fact on record.

With some success, the Macavity-like Osborne has attempted to keep a low profile over the last two weeks but he, along with David Cameron, will now face serious and long overdue questions about his judgement.

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.