Osborne in Scotland: right message, wrong messenger

The Chancellor is on strong ground when he highlights Scotland's difficult currency options but his toxic reputation could damage the unionist cause.

Which currency would an independent Scotland use? Alex Salmond's answer to that question used to be the euro. Back in 2009, the Scottish First Minister quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive ("the parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably"). But that, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and so Salmond has changed tack. The SNP leader's new preference is for Scotland to retain the pound in a formal currency union with the rest of the UK after independence is declared. 

But that isn't as simple as it sounds. As a new Treasury report makes clear, the UK would only agree to a currency union were significant constraints to be imposed on Scotland's tax and spending policies, the lesson of the eurozone crisis being that monetary union is inherently unstable without fiscal union. Were Scotland to reject such restrictions, it would be left with three options: to continue to use sterling unilaterally (rather like Panama uses the dollar and Kosovo uses the euro), but without any say over monetary policy, to adopt the euro (if it is able to join the EU) or to form its own currency, a hazardous path at any time for a small country but most of all during a global economic crisis. 

George Osborne, who will launch the Treasury paper in Glasgow today with Danny Alexander, made the essential point on the Today programme this morning when he remarked that "If Scotland wants to keep the pound, the best way to do that is to stay in the UK." Why, at a time when economic insecurity is hardly in short supply, create even more? The polls suggest it is an argument the voters readilty accept. But while this is the right message, one doubts if Osborne is the right messanger.

The reputation of the man who has presided over a double-dip recession and may yet preside over a triple-dip does not improve (nay, it worsens) if one travels north of the border, where the Conservatives still have just a single MP and typically poll around 15 per cent. A recent Ipsos MORI poll showing that support for the coalition's economic policies plummets when Osborne's name is mentioned was a warning to the "submarine Chancellor" to remain below the surface. His decision to take the fight to Salmond allows the First Minister to cast himself in his favoured role as the resistance to the English Tories. 

Since the independence campaign began, David Cameron has wisely taken a backseat as Alistair Darling and other centre-left figures have led the charge. If Osborne wants to help rather than hinder the unionist cause, he should do the same.  

George Osborne addresses the CBI Scotland annual dinner on September 6, 2012 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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