At last! We have a Budget!
For the SNP, it's a relieving moment: to follow the first ever failure of a Holyrood Budget with a set of proposals which achieved almost unanimous support is surely a good thing. Moreover, once deals had clearly been achieved with the LibDems, the Government could have simply pulled the ladder up and ditched any negotiations with Labour and the Greens. Wiser heads prevailed, at least so far as discussions with Labour are concerned. That's precisely as it should be.
And it help that wind was in the SNP's sails: a poll carried out in the aftermath of the Budget suggested that the Opposition had the most to lose (denting conventional wisdom somewhat) in blocking the first attempt and that the only party leader to have a net approval rating (as opposed to a net disapproval rating) was a certain Mr. A. Salmond.
The lesson here is not to trust conventional wisdom: we've had three long, dull months of commentators waxing lyrical about the end of the honeymoon period, that the sheen was off the Government, and the failed Budget was part of that. Well, if the honeymoon is over, then so much the better for the SNP: it would show that the Government's ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat when you least expect it is, in fact, permanent. That it should be John Swinney displaying that particular skill might seem somewhat ironic to the casual observer - during his spell at the top of the Party, he was not noted for his miraculous strokes of good fortune. But his current role suits him, which helps.
Labour have something to cheer about too: 7,800 new apprenticeships. That's got to be good news, especially for the 7,800 apprentices. And it shows that engagement actually pays off: they could have stayed in a huff, but they'd have got nothing. Instead, they got something good, along with the possibility of a further 7,800 in 2010-11.
Of course, that possibility - it's not a promise by any means - is a double-edged sword: if the SNP deliver, then Labour at last have a theme (the party of apprenticeships and everything that follows from that), and will (reasonably) attempt to claim the credit for demanding it. On the other hand, the SNP will (equally reasonably) claim the credit for actually delivering them, and it binds Labour hands: how could they not support the 2010 Budget, if it includes such a long-standing policy? Conversely, if the policy isn't in next year, then Labour have a clear attack point and total justification for opposing the Budget outright on account of their aims being known for twelve whole months, but Parliamentary arithmetic could see them being sidestepped anyway, and even if the Budget (No. 4) Bill falls, this week suggests that public opinion could easily punish them instead of the Government.
And indeed, they have been just as fortunate as the SNP with events: had the process collapsed, it's clear that they would have lost out, and could have been bounced into an election they didn't want with grim results. Further, there is gossip suggesting that Labour were trying to assemble a new coalition involving the LibDems and the Greens (which couldn't have worked, for reasons I'll explain later) and we know that George Foulkes was trying to use this as an excuse to oust the Government and abandon the Budget process altogether, giving credence to my initial suspicion that the main point of contention regarding the Budget was that it was being delivered by John Swinney rather than Andy Kerr. Luckily for them, wiser heads prevailed, who realised that the contents of a Budget are more important than who presents it. All the same, a clip on tonight's Reporting Scotland showed the applause that Labour offered when the Budget passed: it was half-hearted at best. Now, no one likes being in Opposition, but you'd think that having voted for the thing, and having secured those apprenticeships, a couple of the frontbenchers would have at least smiled. Sadly, one of them - I think it was John Park but I couldn't tell - applauded whilst apparently attempting to hide under his desk. Things like that are just plain embarrassing: they can do better than that.
And what of the Tories? Well, we knew they were more likely than not to support the Budget, and it's not a stretch to imagine that they'll be willing to back the 2010 Budget as well (the 2011 Budget, which will follow a CSR, is another matter entirely). But Annabel Goldie's approach at FMQs was telling:
For Iain Gray and the Scottish Labour Party, this was not about addressing Labour's recession; instead, it was about trying to stage some bloodless debating chamber coup to ensconce him as First Minister. Let me make it clear: I shall have no truck with such antics.
This begs the question: if it had come down to a confidence vote, would the Tories have voted with the Government? Because it looks like it there! Is this the start of a verbal confidence-and-supply agreement? Not necessarily:
Does the First Minister agree that Scotland is already badly served by one Labour Government and that we certainly do not need two?
That's the key: Goldie and the Tories have one eye on Westminster. Whether the General Election is this Spring or next year, we are heading into the concluding part of a Westminster election cycle, in which Labour and the Tories are in a state of direct clash over which one forms the UK Government. Their campaign to eject Labour from office at Westminster would become far more difficult and far less effective were the Scottish Tories to install Labour in office at Holyrood. The SNP and Tories don't necessarily share common policies and viewpoints, but they do share a common adversary.
And what of the LibDems? I wasn't a fan of the tax cut proposal - the talk of a stimulus is all well and good, but with people losing their jobs, there's less taxable income anyway so less money coming into public coffers and more people needing help that only the Government can afford to provide: while tax cuts might provide a stimulus for those who are just about holding on, keeping tax levels as they are maintains the present safety net for those who need it - but I'm intrigued by what the LibDems have got in this negotiation.
Firstly, the letter to the Calman Commission. Now, a letter from the Government stating the obvious (of course the Government wants borrowing powers - it wants every power the UK Government has!) might not seem like much, but as the SNP have been aloof from the Commission (no wonder really, when its terms of reference effectively freeze a pro-independence party out anyway), getting the Government to engage with it on any level is something of a coup. Of course, the LibDems haven't been getting the best return from Calman, so this might steer things in their direction or might serve to alienate them further. Even that may not be a bad thing: it would provide them with an out when the signposts suggest that Calman might not be all that close to what the LibDems want to see. Obviously, there's the joke that the LibDem position has shifted for the price of a stamp, but that stamp yet turn out to be significant.
The public spending review is another odd beast, and may prove less fruitful for the LibDems. Firstly, it sounds like it's going to be little more than a consultation with shoulder-pads, and consultations don't always deliver. And if it's carried out by the Parliament (which would make more sense) the likely people to do so would be the Finance Committee, where an SNP/Tory combination could freeze the LibDems out. So the LibDems should prepare for disappointment here. Even though they both want to travel in the same direction - a reduction in spending - the SNP are aiming for efficiency savings in preparation for a cut in the available budget, while the LibDems are looking for tax cuts.
Further, the LibDems want greater roles for the Council of Economic Advisers (an SNP creation) and Financial Services Advisory Board (of which SNP Ministers have been members for eighteen months), the latter with a view to protecting jobs in the financial services sector - an issue where the two parties are once again on the same page.
Lastly, the LibDems want to see movement on the Scottish Futures Trust - a brainchild of the SNP. That isn't surprising either, since neither party is all too enamoured with PPP/PFI.
That's the thing with the LibDems: there's a massive overlap between what they want and what the SNP want, but the two parties just don't seem to be speaking the same language at all. Are the underlying beliefs of the two parties so irreconcilable, or is it just a holdover from the Lab/LibDem Coalition?
Finally, the Greens. I feel sad for them, in a way, in that they seemed to be the fairest of the parties to vote against the Budget, while a lot of the vitriol that went their way following last week's vote was unfair: they were one of three parties to oppose the Budget, yet seemed to get a larger share of the blame despite being genuinely unhappy with proposals after negotiation when the LibDems didn't even try to get a viable deal and Labour were, it seems, looking at opportunities for intrigue. A deal with them would have made the most sense.
Instead, they got less Government funding for insulation - £15 million instead of £22 million - and more from other sources - £15 million instead of £11 million - though not enough to make the £33 million the Greens wanted. Moreover, if the Government finds at least £11 million of that extra outside cash, then Patrick Harvie will be made to look like a total chump: John Swinney said they'd get it and if he's proven right, then Harvie's opposition to the last Budget was for nothing. And even if Harvie is proven right instead, then there would still have been more money available to the project in the first version of the Budget, so his vindication would cost the scheme £7 million. I think Patrick Harvie realised this at the end, and the two Greens looked like rather forlorn figures today.
Moreover, the rumours are that Labour was making doe eyes at them. Now, it would be strange for the Greens to want to back a pro-Nuclear, pro-Trident, anti-Referendum party, when they are the exact inverse of all of those things and so are the SNP but there's something more practical standing in the way - the Greens' signature against this:
Therefore, the Scottish Green Party is committed to supporting the Scottish National Party in the votes for First Minister and Ministerial appointments. For their part, the Scottish National Party agrees to consult Scottish Green Party MSPs in advance regarding the broad shape of each year’s legislative and policy programme (together with any key measures announced in-year), and in relation to the substance of the budget process. The Scottish National Party also agrees to nominate a Green Party MSP as Convenor of a subject committee for which the SNP is the nominating Party.
Now, the SNP met their end of the deal: they consulted with the Greens - "consult" does not mean "agree with", remember - and Patrick Harvie is still Convener of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, so with the letter of the agreement still in play, for the Greens to vote to replace Alex Salmond with Iain Gray and SNP Ministers with Labour and LibDem Ministers before an election would be a massive tactical error: they would be the first party in Holyrood to tear up an agreement. They would be going back on their word and Iain Gray would be wise to bear that in mind. If he does, they're totally frozen out: the Scottish LibDems were frozen out in 2007 through intransigence, the Welsh LibDems through indecision. The Greens would be the first to be isolated for not sticking to an agreement and while that might not have any impact outwith the Holyrood village, a total lack of influence on proceedings definitely would (people did at least notice and think about the Greens this week) and it wouldn't be a positive one. If they have been thinking about a deal with Labour, they might want to think about the deal they already have with the SNP as well.
But then, the important thing tonight is that we have a Budget. And 123 MSPs (plus the three who were AWOL) have something to smile about from it.
04 February 2009
At last! We have a Budget!