Planning minister Nick Boles.
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Nick Boles learns a valuable lesson in not asking silly rhetorical questions on Twitter

Planning minister scores a solid own goal.

Ask yourself this. Who does Vladimir Putin want to see running Britain after 7th May?

— Nick Boles (@NickBolesMP) April 9, 2015

Pity the poor planning minister. While Nick Boles isn't known for being among the coalition's sharpest, he is something of a tool; as evidenced by his hamfisted attempt to score points around the Trident debate this morning by asking the above question.

We know what he thinks the correct answer is: Ed Miliband, because David Cameron has notoriously been so great at foreign affairs during his time as PM. But, of course, asking such a rhetorical question on Twitter always invites answers...

 

@NickBolesMP Vladimir Putin

— WelshRacer (@Welshracer) April 9, 2015

.@NickBolesMP H from Steps, maybe?

— David Whitley (@mrdavidwhitley) April 9, 2015

@NickBolesMP @ostercywriter Noel Edmonds ?

— James MacDonald (@jamesma51284102) April 9, 2015

@mrjamesob is it Jeremy Clarkson?

— Henry Scowcroft (@oh_henry) April 9, 2015

@NickBolesMP You? Is this a trick question?

— Julie Carlisle (@JuliecarJulie) April 9, 2015

Alan Shearer? @NickBolesMP

— Ern Malley (@loveandgarbage) April 9, 2015

Barry Scott from the Cillit Bang adverts? @NickBolesMP

— Eddie Robson (@EddieRobson) April 9, 2015

@NickBolesMP Is it astrologer to the stars, Jonathan Cainer?

— Huw (@ed_son) April 9, 2015

...though of course, the best answers were even more to the point:

.@NickBolesMP you are a moron, there is no other explanation for this

— Pete Clarke (@creativeblock_) April 9, 2015

I'm a mole, innit.

Photo: Getty
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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.