Who rises if Huhne falls?

Ministers are on alert for a reshuffle if Huhne is charged by the police.

The sword of Damocles is swinging ever closer to Chris Huhne's head. Today it emerged that the Sunday Times has dropped its opposition to a court ruling ordering it to hand over emails relating to speeding claims against the Energy Secretary. As you'll recall, Essex Police are investigating whether Huhne asked his former wife Vicky Pryce to take penalty points on his behalf - a criminal offence.

Huhne has long maintained that the allegations are "incorrect" and the Prime Minister's spokeswoman has said that David Cameron "has confidence" in him, but as the Evening Standard reported earlier this week, ministers are on alert for a mini-resuffle if he is charged.

So, who rises if Huhne falls? Ed Davey, the employment minister and Vince Cable's deputy, is the name most frequently cited as a possible replacement. He is well regarded by Lib Dem MPs after fending off some of the wilder proposals contained in Adrian Beecroft's report on labour market reform. The Standard also suggests that Jeremy Browne, the Foreign Office minister, is in the running.

Another name inevitably raised is that of David Laws, whom Cameron has always insisted he wants to see back on the frontbench. But at a time when Nick Clegg is pursuing a strategy of differentiation it would seem inappropriate for Laws, the Tories' favourite Lib Dem, to replace the left-leaning Huhne, possibly their least favourite.

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.