David Cameron with Ed Miliband before the state opening of Parliament in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories cut Labour's poll lead to one point

Osborne's populist Budget helps the Conservatives claw back voters from UKIP.

With its laser focus on pensioners (the most likely age group to vote), George Osborne's fifth Budget was his shrewdest to date - and the Tories have been duly rewarded in the polls. Two surveys published tonight - Survation for the Mail on Sunday and YouGov for the Sunday Times - put Labour's lead at just one point.

As intended, the measures announced by Osborne have helped to draw the over-65s away from UKIP and back to the Tories. Survation puts the Conservatives up four points to 34 per cent, with the Farageists down three points to 15 per cent. Labour support has actually risen by one point to 35 per cent, showing that the Tories have benefited by clawing back voters from UKIP and winning over the previously undecided. YouGov does show a fall in the Labour vote, from 39 per cent to 37 per cent, but again it's UKIP that has suffered most, with its support down from 15 per cent to 11 per cent.

The polls are the best for the Tories since an ICM survey last summer put them level with Labour on 36 per cent (the last time they led in a poll was March 2012, just before the omnishambles Budget) and will inevitably lead many to conclude that the Conservatives are on course for victory in 2015. This might well be the case (the political and economic cycles look increasingly well aligned for Osborne) but it's wise to treat the numbers with caution for now.

It's not unheard of for the governing party to enjoy a bounce from the Budget (although it is rarer than most think), especially if it is well received by the media, which fades as normal business is resumed. David Cameron's "veto" of the EU fiscal treaty in December 2011, which saw the Tories briefly regain their lead over Labour, is a good example of how one-off events can skew voting intentions. 

Even so, since we are still 14 months away from the general election, with some voters unlikely to return to the Conservative fold until the last moment (there is little prospect of UKIP polling 15 per cent in 2015), the Tories have cause to be hopeful of victory tonight.

The consolation for Labour is that as long as it retains the support of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem supporters (which is not guaranteed), its vote share will remain high enough for it to run the Tories close.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.