It could be you: Nick Clegg appeared to give away his favourite to take over the leadership. Photo: Getty
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Did Nick Clegg reveal his preferred successor in his speech?

Praise for Danny Alexander, but small digs at Tim Farron and Vince Cable.

Though this year saw a surprisingly chipper annual gathering for the Lib Dems, it wouldn’t have been Lib Dem party conference without some hearty leadership speculation. With Nick Clegg admitting he “won't go on forever”, and rumours of the potential rivals jostling for position, an overriding theme of this conference was who will end up being his successor.

Within the party and among Westminster commentators, it’s widely thought that if the Lib Dems lose more than half of their seats in the general election, as predicted in the polls, Clegg will have to stand down. Equally, if Labour were to attempt a pact with his party in the event of a hung parliament, it’s thought they will want a different Lib Dem leader to work with.

Some elements of Clegg’s keynote speech to party conference this afternoon suggested some thoughts about his successor were also playing on his mind. He praised a couple of the supposed leadership hopefuls: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Energy Secretary Ed Davey. However, he only tossed off-the-cuff playful digs at the two favourites: party president Tim Farron and Business Secretary Vince Cable.

Of Alexander, he said:

Danny set it all out on Sunday: Eliminating the deficit in the first three years of the next parliament, and then bringing debt down steadily and sustainably. Running a budget that is balanced overall and - this is crucial - doing it in a way that allows us to invest in Britain's creaking infrastructure too . . .

In 2012 - I'll never forget this - Danny and I said: let's go further and faster to cut people's income tax. It's possible now, so why wait? George Osborne turned to me and said: I don't want to deliver a Liberal Democrat Budget.

Of Davey, he said:

Both parties in this Government promised we would stick to our green commitments, but it has taken constant pressure from the Liberal Democrats - not least Ed Davey - to hold the Tories to their word. And I can tell you now that a sustainable environment will remain at the heart of our vision for Britain's future - it's not green crap to us.

He also praised another potential hopeful, the health minister Norman Lamb, saying he deserved “a medal” for the “tireless work” he’s done on mental healthcare in government.

However, when it came to Farron – the cheery frontrunner for the party’s next leader – he simply told a joke about his uncanny impression of the Ukip leader when helping Clegg rehearse for the television debates earlier this year. He said the party president had been “so convincingly brilliant at copying Nigel Farage” it was "terrifying". He also noted that Farron was “even wearing a purple tie”.

Then there was a little dig at Cable. Urging his party not to hold back on their attacks on the Conservatives, Clegg referred to the Business Secretary’s reputation for disliking the Tories and therefore being an awkward coalition minister: “Vince, you’ve got to start telling us what you really think about the Tories”.

Although such jokes and asides never feature in the text of party conference speeches pre-briefed to the press, it is still significant that there weren’t references in either the original text or the delivered version to the work Cable has done in government, or Farron has done for the party. All this points to Alexander – a more likely candidate than Davey, who is not as popular or influential in the party – being Clegg’s preferred successor.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at 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.