Salmond's courtship of Murdoch continues

SNP activists are said to be dismayed by Salmond's behaviour.

How far will Alex Salmond go in his bid to woo Rupert Murdoch? The Scottish First Minister has met the Sun King or his executives 26 times since taking office and exclusively revealed to the Scottish Sun on Sunday his planned referendum date of 18 October 2014.

Now it's emerged that Murdoch and Salmond also discussed the notable subject of corporation tax at their recent meeting. According to former Murdoch confidant, Andrew Neil, the News Corp head indicted that he could move BSkyB's headquarters to Edinburgh if an independent Scotland slashed corporation tax from 26 per cent (the UK rate) to 10 per cent. In return, Murdoch, who has already tweeted his support for Scottish independence, could swing his tabloids behind Salmond's campaign. Writing in the Daily Mail, Kelvin MacKenzie suggested that the SNP leader was giving "serious thought to the idea".

Given Salmond's record of sycophancy towards Murdoch that is no surprise. Following a meeting with Murdoch in New York in October 2007, he wrote:

I enjoyed our conversation and, as ever, found your views both insightful and stimulating.

On another occasion, after the opening of News International's Eurocentral printing plant in Motherwell, Salmond fawned:

Thank you so much for the invitation to open the splendid new plant at Eurocentral. I hope that News International goes from strength to strength and that your "big bet" in newspapers will pay off.

Salmond was eventually rewarded when the Scottish Sun backed the SNP at the last Holyrood election and when the paper's executives treated him to a curry dinnner after his party's remarkable victory.

For now, with the SNP determined to maintain unity ahead of the referendum, Salmond's behaviour is unlikely to be challenged. But it's unsurprising to learn from the Daily Record that grassroots activists are dismayed by their leader's actions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.