The Chancellor emphasises that an EU membership vote would be unwhipped. Photo: Getty
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George Osborne: the EU referendum would be a free vote for Tory backbenchers

The Chancellor says that a vote on Britain's EU membership would be unwhipped for Conservative backbench MPs.

It's a sign of the Tories' enduring problems when the Chancellor says something more notable on EU membership than the economy during Conservative party conference.

This morning, he told the BBC's Today programme that a vote on Britain’s EU membership would be a “free vote” in parliament. He conceded that Tory MPs who want to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union would be free to do so, and to vote Out.

When asked whether or not Conservative backbenchers would be able to campaign for an Out vote in an EU referendum, Osborne said: “Ultimately it will be a free vote. It's a referendum.”

This emphasis on the freedom of conscience for MPs over the EU is no coincidence. With two Tory MPs jumping ship to the anti-EU Ukip, and rumours of more to follow (the Staggers is hearing the names of Chris Kelly and Gordon Henderson), the Tory leadership is looking to keep its eurosceptic members in the fold.

However, it’s unclear whether cabinet ministers would also be allowed a free vote. In the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Community, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to suspend collective responsibility because of his cabinet being split on the issue. Cabinet ministers were allowed to vote with their consciences and also to campaign against each other.

David Cameron’s cabinet has its eurosceptics – the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond being a prominent example – so would this 1975 precedent mean a cabinet tearing each other apart in the event of an EU referendum?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at 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.