Clegg backs Huhne for a cabinet return - but who would make way?

Former Energy Secretary will be back "at the top table" if he is cleared over speeding claims, says Clegg.

Speaking at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster, Nick Clegg has just said that he'd like to see his old rival Chris Huhne back in the cabinet if the former Energy Secretary succeeds in clearing his name. Huhne was charged with perverting the course of justice in February 2012 after allegedly asking his former wife Vicky Pryce to accept speeding points on his behalf. His trial was due to begin last October but was adjourned until 14 January for legal reasons.

Asked whether Huhne could return, Clegg said he would like to see him "at the top table of British politics". Then asked whether this meant the cabinet, he replied "Yes". This prompts the question of which Lib Dem cabinet minister would make way for Huhne. The party currently has a quota of five seats (Clegg, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Michael Moore and Ed Davey), with David Laws, who returned to government as an education minister in last September's reshuffle, also attending cabinet.

Clegg insisted that Davey, who replaced Huhne as Energy Secretary, was not simply warming his predecessor's seat, but this did not amount to a guarantee of his position. With Clegg unlikely to appoint a non-Scot to the post of Scottish Secretary (Michael Moore's current job) and Alexander and Cable both secure in their posts, Davey is the most likely to be sacrificed.

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, who resigned in February 2012 after being charged with perverting the course of justice. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.