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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). 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 considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.