4G auction raises £1bn less than expected

£3.5bn has been pre-spent; just £2.35bn will be arriving in the coffers.

The auction for the 4G mobile communications spectrum has raised just £2.34bn, over £1bn short of expectations. Since the money has been effectively pre-spent by the chancellor in the most recent budget, the discrepancy will be extremely problematic for the Government's budget plans.

The £2.34bn will buy five companies — EE, 3, O2, Vodafone and a new operator "Niche Spectrum Ventures Ltd" (owned by BT)  — access to the 4G spectrum. This will allow those operators to run mobile broadband throughout much of the UK, and is partly enabled by the switch-off of analogue TV, which freed up part of the 4G spectrum for alternative use.

While the Chancellor was apparently greedy in assuming that Britain could earn £3.5bn from the sale of the spectrum, the last auction like this, held under Gordon Brown's treasury, raised £22bn. But the 3G sale was markedly different from the 4G one. Held in the midst of the dot-com boom, the hope for revenue from the new technology was inflated beyond the realms of possibility, and a concerted PR campaign on the part of the government running for three years beforehand ensured that hype reached fever pitch.

Take, for example, Webvan. The company was founded with the promise of same-day delivery in the San Francisco area on a number of basic products — it was, basically, Ocado. But unlike Ocado, it had a market cap post-IPO of $8bn. Ocado, undoubtedly better than Webvan in every aspect, but ten years later, went for a quarter of that. In other words: the 2010s are not the 2000s when it comes to making big money from technology.

The 3G auction was also successful, however, in managing expectations. The general assumption was that "licences would sell for a total of about £2-4 billion", according to Ken Binmore and Paul Klemperer, authors of the definitive look at the auction. If this Chancellor has made one mistake, it was overinflating expectations — and if he's made two, it was writing those overinflated expectations into the nation's budget. His hubris will sting this morning.

4G iPads. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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