Could Clegg kill the NHS bill?

The Lib Dem leader remains the greatest threat to the health bill's survival.

"We're fucked". That, according to today's Daily Telegraph, was David Cameron's terse response after he was briefed on Andrew Lansley's health reforms following the general election. His words have proved prophetic. The Tories now trail Labour by 15 points as the party that has "the best approach to the NHS" and just 20 per cent of voters believe the NHS is "safe in David Cameron's hands".

Cameron's strong defence of private competition at yesterday's PMQs suggests that he's in no mood to compromise. But the yellow half of the coalition may yet force him to do so. Nick Robinson's report last night that Nick Clegg is considering reneging his support for the bill is a sign of just how high tensions are running. For now, the Lib Dem leader is encouraging his peers to table further amendments to limit competition in an attempt to head off a revolt at his party's spring conference next month. But should this route fail, who's to say Clegg won't choose the nuclear option? As Robinson reported yesterday, the Lib Dem leader "has told allies that he is losing more activists from the party on this issue than he did on tuition fees".

Clegg was discredited when he gave his backing to the bill at the start of last year (Shirley Williams recently revealed that he hadn't bothered to read it). But it is he, rather than Labour and the health unions, who now poses the greatest threat to its survival.

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.