"We screwed this up" The Lib Dems flail after Clegg's admission

Party president Tim Farron admits the Lib Dems "screwed up" as Clegg insists there is "nothing to hide".

"We screwed this up," Tim Farron bluntly told the Today programme this morning and, as today's front pages suggest, the Lib Dem president isn't wrong about that. For days, the party gave the impression that Nick Clegg knew nothing about the allegations of sexual misconduct against Chris Rennard only for Clegg to return from holiday last night and admit that he was aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns". 

In his own interview on BBC Radio Solent, Clegg, unlike Farron, suggested that the Lib Dems had behaved entirely appropriately. "The problem, as I explained yesterday, is that until last week no specific allegations were put to me, we acted on general concerns, now those general concerns have evolved into specific allegations we can act and we will," said the Deputy PM. Both he and the party had "nothing to hide". 

But the question remains why more wasn't done at the time to investigate the "general concerns" that Clegg now admits he was aware of. When Danny Alexander, Clegg's then chief of staff, confronted Rennard (who denied and still denies any misconduct) in 2008 did he simply take his denials at face value? In addition, those in the party, such as Jo Swinson and Paul Burstow, who were made aware of specific allegations by the women concerned urgently need to account for their actions. 

A further issue is whether Rennard's resignation in 2009 was made on health grounds alone, as Clegg and Alexander insisted in their statements, or whether the "general concerns" about his behaviour also played a role. Simon Hughes notably told Sky News this morning that "If there were other reasons for that [the resignation] they may emerge". Clegg is known to have held a two hour meeting with Rennard on the morning he resigned. Were the rumours of misconduct discussed then?

Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. 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.