28 January 2009

Where do we go from here?

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed what would (well, what should) happen if Parliament rejected the Budget. Parliament has rejected the Budget.

Thing is, I treated the Budget like a confidence vote. I didn't really think of what would happen in the event of a tie.

In this case, the Presiding Officer voted with the status quo, as he's supposed to. That meant voting with the Opposition.

In a no-confidence vote, the Presiding Officer would have voted with the status quo, as he's suposed to. That would have meant voting with the Government.

So we're in a grey area. We cannot say that Parliament has outright confidence in the Government, as it did not vote for its Budget. But we cannot say that Parliament has no confidence in the Government as the latter would have won a confidence vote on the basis of tonight's proceedings.

So there needs to be some sort of attempt to move things forward, but it must not get bogged down: it will either be simple - giving the Greens enough money for their home insulation project that they can abstain (so 64 votes to 62, and a passed Bill) - or it will be impossible as all parties retreat into their own camps and we end up with lots of grandstanding, loads of egg-throwing, but no Budget.

If it's the former, we can all breathe a sigh of relief, and life goes on for another year.

If it's the latter, then we'll know soon enough, and there can only be one eventual outcome: an Election.

Let us assume that the process fails and the First Minister resigns. The clock begins. Labour may attempt to put together an alternative government: Iain Gray can probably count on the LibDems. That's a total of 62 votes - not enough. He may be able to score a deal with the Greens, but it will be far looser than Labour would like and it will still only take that Coalition up to 64, which as we learned today, is not enough. Even if they do go on to form a Government on that basis, they'd have to keep Margo MacDonald on side permanently, so as to secure the 65 votes needed. Without that, their Budget would also die and we'd be back to square one. On that basis, then, it might not be wise for Iain Gray to proceed as he too would hit a brick wall: like the current Government, he might get the Confidence, but not the Supply.

So the calculation is: which will do Labour the most damage, to go into an Election now, or attempt to form a weak administration, then go into an Election a few months later, and weakened from that experience? That is what Iain Gray now has to consider. It's also what Tavish Scott has to consider.

But assuming that they vote in favour of proceeding (they may conclude that they want to form a Government and that an Election may form a barrier to that aim), and direct their Business Managers to vote in favour of a programme which includes a vote to replace the First Minister, that's still only part of the story as they have only 62 votes out of a possible 125 on the Parliamentary Bureau. The SNP would want an election in these circumstances, so would vote against a Programme which contained a First Ministerial election: the plan would be the only one available - to run down the clock. So that's 62 votes in favour, 47 against.

It then falls to the Tories, and their 16 votes. Should the current Government fall, would they want an election immediately, or only after Labour tried and failed to put together a stable administration?

There are now only two factors which will decide whether or not this Government and this Third Session of the Scottish Parliament survive: whether or not John Swinney can get a deal that keeps the Tories and Margo on side, and gains Green acquiescence, and if he should not succeed, whether David McLetchie - the Tories' Business Manager - votes for or against any schedule for Parliamentary Business that includes a vote to replace the First Minister.

My view is that a change in Government should always require an election - surely any prospective administration would recognise the need to put its supposed public support to the test, and present its programme to the country, unless it saw itself as little more than a Caretaker administration until an election could be held?

But, frankly, I do not want a change in Government. If the LibDems think this Budget is uninspiring, then they must look back on the old days of the Lib-Drab Pact with rose-tinted spectacles. The last administration only ever seemed to promote pessimism, and had no positive approach to any policy challenge, other than, "We hate Alex Salmond". The only thing they took forward was inertia. Even now, Labour are happy to see other countries descend into misery, simply to highlight a political point. What Scotland has now is a vast improvement on those days.

So my position as of now is, "A deal if possible, an election if necessary".

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