Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman at the launch of the party's manifesto during the election campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Harman warns Labour MPs: "We are not commentators, we are campaigners"

Acting leader tells first PLP meeting that party must "throw off any sense of loss or mourning".

In her new role as acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman has just delivered a typically pugnacious speech at the first PLP meeting of the new term. She told the assembled MPs and peers that they had a duty to "challenge and harry" the Tories "every step of the way", urging them to "throw off any sense of loss or mourning". Harman added: "The Tories want to see themselves popping champagne corks in the City, chin up, all cheerful. The SNP want to be strutting down these corridors, they want to see us be miserable and downcast, we are not going to give them that pleasure."

Turning to the forthcoming leadership contest, she declared that those running for election "must be part of our attack team". After much criticism of Labour's laxity in 2010, which many believe allowed the Tories to define the terms of economic debate, Harman's message was that there must be no repeat. She told MPs that candidates must use "every single interview, every single thing that they say" not only to "show why they would be the best leader or deputy" but to "land one on the Tories with the air time they've got". There are, however, some who will question whether attacking the Tories (who, it bears repeating, won a majority) is the priority after such a terrible defeat. 

In her most notable line, Harman warned the party: "We are not commentators, we are campaigners for the next Labour government" (one of Lynton Crosby's favourite dictums). And in an appeal to avoid bloodletting, she told Labour: "We must look deep into our souls, but we mustn't open our veins". 

On the timetable for the leadership election, which will be determined by the NEC on Wednesday, Harman outlined three options: a short contest ending on 31 July, a longer one concluding after the summer recess in September, and an extended one with hustings held at the party conference (as in the case of 2005). The view among MPs is that the second is the likeliest option (there were audible boos from Committee Room 14 when the third was mentioned). By having a leader in place before the conference opens, Labour hopes to avoid the fraught aftermath of the 2010 contest. In a reminder that the party still hasn't come to love Peter Mandelson (as Tony Blair once hoped it would), there was loud applause when, responding to his warnings over the leadership voting system, Harman said: "You don't need to listen to Peter Mandelson, he is not properly factually informed". She confirmed that the contest would take place under the new one-member-one-vote model agreed last year. 

George Eaton is political editor of 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.