Conservative Party campaign posters outside Labour's manifesto launch last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the SNP would struggle to hold Labour to ransom

There is a Commons majority for Trident and the party couldn't amend Budgets in the way it hopes. 

For yet another day, the Conservatives are pushing the line that a minority Labour government would be held to ransom by the SNP. In his first intervention of the election campaign, John Major will warn in a speech that the nationalists would hold sway over economic policy. "Labour would be in hock to a party that - slowly but surely - will push them ever further to the left," he will say. "And who would pay the price for this? We all would. We would all pay for the SNP's ransom in our daily lives - through higher taxes, fewer jobs, and more and more debt.” The Tories regard this attack as a powerful means of winning over Ukip defectors and Lib Dems in southern battleground seats.

In recent weeks they have warned that a Labour government dependent on the SNP for support would be forced to abandon Trident and captiulate on deficit reduction. But this rhetoric masks what would be a very different reality. Firstly, as I wrote last week, the SNP has already dramatically reduced its bargaining power by vowing not to prop up any Conservative-led government. In the case of Trident, as Stephen noted yesterday, those MPs in favour of renewal (most of Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems) will vastly outweigh those opposed. As long as the Tories are prepared to walk through the division lobbies with Miliband, there is no chance of the SNP blocking defence spending (as its deputy leader Stewart Hosie grandiosely suggested it would). 

The nationalists' hand is little stronger in the case of the Budget. We are told by Major and others that the SNP could flood Labour's programme with tax rises and spending increases. But as Colin Talbot, professor of government at Manchester University, notes in an essential post: "In the Westminster parliament only the government can propose taxation or spending measures. These can be defeated, or amended, but only by cutting spending or lowering or removing taxes – not by increasing either." There is no parliamentary means by which the SNP could force a Labour government to spend £140bn more on public services (as proposed in its manifesto). It is this that explains the confidence of Ed Balls in asserting that he would not "negotiate" with the party over the Budget and that its measures would be entirely determined by himself and Ed Milliband.

The SNP could, in theory, combine forces with the Tories to vote down a Labour Budget (without fear of triggering a second election owing to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act). But would it really be prepared to obstruct measures endorsed in its manifesto such as the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate, the repeal of the bedroom tax, the abolition of non-dom status and a bankers' bonus tax? The sight of SNP MPs voting alongside Conservatives to prevent such progressive policies would be a gift to Scottish Labour. 

For these reasons, whatever the political merits of the Conservatives' attack (and there are some Tories who fear it is crowding out their core message), it deserves to be treated with far greater policy scepticism than at present. The SNP talk a good game but they would struggle to play one. 

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.