David Cameron gives a speech about the further powers devolved to the Scottish parliament on January 22, 2015 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's "weaponise" charge throws Miliband off balance

The PM's sheer chutzpah allowed him to command the session. 

Few PMQs in this parliament have been as brutal as today's. Ed Miliband led again on the NHS, Labour's strongest suit (and the issue that polls show is of greatest importance to voters), questioning David Cameron on his failure to save A&E units from closure. Cameron responded by immediately challenging Miliband on his refusal to deny that he vowed to "weaponise" the health service, demanding that he apologise. At this point, the session descended into one of the ugliest encounters yet between the two men. 

The Labour leader attacked Cameron's evasiveness (with supreme chutzpah, he simply ignored his questions) but the PM would not relent. After persistent goading, a furious Miliband hyperbolically accused him of declaring "war on Wales" before clarifying that this referred to his use of the "Welsh NHS" for "political propaganda". Any channel hopper unfortunate enough to catch the exchanges would likely have switched off at this point. 

The Tories' outrage over "weaponise" is, to put it mildly, rather confected. It was largely through their briefings over welfare that the word first entered the political lexicon. But it does provide Cameron with a means of throwing Miliband off balance every time he raises the subject. Most voters are unlikely to care about the substance of the "weaponise" row (a word that conjures up images of armed doctors). But they will notice Miliband's equivocation and the rhetorical exaggerations that Cameron provokes ("war on Wales"). Having said several times that he "does not remember" what he said to the BBC's Nick Robinson (who first reported the "weaponise" claim), the Labour leader cannot now defend his alleged use of the word without being branded a liar. 

The PM's ruthless form was testimony to his increasing confidence (the Tories having taken the lead in the polls). In response to a question from Labour left-winger Jeremy Corbyn on his conversation with Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, the PM, deploying his party's mantra of choice, quipped that he asked him what his "long-term economic plan" was. 

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.