Farage says that "a couple of dozen" Tory MPs would be open to pacts with UKIP

The UKIP leader's figure is "spot on", says Conservative MP Philip Hollobone.

Nigel Farage is doing his best to steal the limelight from George Osborne today with a stringe of fringe appearances outside the Conservative secure zone. He quipped to cheers at one event: "If Godfrey Bloom disrupted my conference, I like to think I'm disrupting and ruining David Cameron's."

But it was on Radio 4 earlier today that Farage's most notable comments came. After reaffirming his support for local non-aggression pacts between Tory and UKIP candidates in today's Times, he told the World At One that he estimated that "a couple of dozen" Conservative MPs would be open to agreement. Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who won the backing of UKIP in 2010, went on to describe Farage's figure as "spot on".

Conservative ministers have done their best to play down talk of deals today, but Farage's comments are a reminder of why the idea won't go way, particularly if UKIP win the European elections next year, or at least outperform the Tories. At a fractious fringe meeting with Farage earlier today, Bill Cash warned that UKIP could cost the Tories up to 60 seats and hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. "Let us be realistic. Are we going to be allies or enemies? Lay off our marginals," he said.

While UKIP is unlikely to inflict as much damage on the Tories as Cash fears, the split in the right-wing vote (UKIP draws around half of its support from 2010 Tory supporters), will make it easier for Labour to dislodge the Tories in the marginals it needs to win to become the largest party. At the last election, with a UKIP share of just 3 per cent, there were 20 constituencies in which the party's vote exceeded the Labour majority (one shouldn't make the error of assuming that all those who supported the party would have backed the Tories in its absence, but many would have done). Should UKIP poll at least 5-6%, around half of its current support, it could well indirectly propel Labour to victory. And that is why talk of pacts will continue right up until May 2015.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage addresses the Bruges Group in Manchester Town Hall earlier today. 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.