Salmond and Cameron resume their tug of war

The likely outcome of this week's referendum talks.

The constitutional tug of war between Westminster and Holyrood begins again this week, with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore meeting Alex Salmond for talks in Edinburgh today, and David Cameron following him a few days later. Although it wants the independence referendum to be held as soon as possible, the UK government is prepared to accept Salmond's chosen date of autumn 2014, a few weeks after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

But the timing aside, much else remains unclear. The two sides remain divided on the wording of the referendum, the number of questions, the role of the UK's Electoral Commission and whether 16 and 17 year-olds should get a vote, as the SNP has argued. The UK government is determined for the referendum to be a straight yes/no vote on independence with no devolution max option included. The danger in leaving "devo max"off the ballot paper is that Scottish voters, the majority of whom support it, conclude that the only way to win fiscal autonomy is to vote for full independence.

It was for this reason that Moore indicated that further powers could be transferred to Scotland in the event of a no vote. As he told the Times (£), "The referendum is the start of the conversation, not the end." What remains unclear is whether Moore was freelancing or speaking on behalf of the UK government. Although George Osborne is attracted by the option of devo max, which would force Scotland to raise its own money as well as spend it, few other Tories are.

Should the UK government and Scotland fail to reach agreement on the terms of the referendum, it's still possible that Salmond will hold his own advisory ballot without the legal authority of Westminster. This would be open to challenge in the courts but, as I noted last month, Moore has indicated that the government would not launch that challenge itself. Yet as the blog Wings over Scotland asked at the time, why would the UK government not challenge what would be an allegedly illegal attempt to break up the Union? The government's true opinion of the legality of a Scottish-led referendum will come under scrutiny again this week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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