Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell take pre-conference swipes at Cable

Campbell tells Cable "don't be quite so gloomy" and Ashdown says that Clegg's enemy Lord Oakeshott is "Vince’s problem".

Nick Clegg and his allies have often privately expressed their frustration at how Vince Cable has sought (with some success) to avoid taking full responsibility for policies such as the tuition fees rise and the austerity programme by regularly positioning himself to the left of the coalition. But what is striking today is that two former Lib Dem leaders have gone public with their criticisms of the Business Secretary. In an article for the Guardian, ahead of the opening of the party's conference in Glasgow tomorrow, Ming Campbell writes: "And by the way Dr Cable, don't be quite so gloomy!" 

While recognising the importance of differentiating themselves from the Tories on the economy, the Lib Dems also want to take their share of the credit for the recovery. Cable's consciously downbeat assessment this week was widely viewed as unhelpful. 

In addition, following Lord Oakeshott's hackneyed call for the party to consider removing Clegg, Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader's political godfather, remarked: "I think Matthew’s self-appointed position as a sort of vicar on Earth for Vince does neither of them any good ... but that’s Vince’s problem". 

With these interventions, Campbell and Ashdown are rather kicking a kick at a man when's he down. A year ago, when Clegg's position still seemed at risk, Cable was viewed as the party's leader-in-waiting. He memorably signalled his interest in the position ("I don’t exclude it – who knows what might happen in the future...The worship of youth has diminished – perhaps generally – in recent years.") and was aided by a poll showing that the Lib Dems would gain four points with him as leader. But the Eastleigh by-election (which proved that the party could win in its strongholds) and the return of growth (which deflated Cable's call in the New Statesman for a plan B) mean that his star has waned. As I suggest in this week's NS, Tim Farron is now the man to watch. 

Vince Cable at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Brighton earlier this year. 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.