Off the rails?
Would they dare? Would SNP ministers dare to defy the will of parliament? Or, expressed in a less pejorative fashion, would they have the chutzpah to cancel a major transport project if MSPs vote for it to go ahead?
With delicious irony, the renewed controversy over new transport schemes for Edinburgh broke today just as the capital was putting up the “no entry” signs to motorists because of serious congestion on the city bypass and the M8.
Let’s recap. The previous administration - and parliament - endorsed plans for trams in Edinburgh and for a new rail link to Edinburgh Airport. The SNP stood on a manifesto of cancelling both, arguing that public transport needs could be better served by other expenditure.
John Swinney, the finance secretary, asked the auditor general, Robert Black, to review the schemes. His verdict? The trams scheme benefits from "sound financial management".
And the rail link? It suffers from “lack of agreement over governance arrangements.” Translation: nobody has a clue who’s in charge, leading to substantial uncertainty as to progress and cost.
Which brings us back to the opening question. John Swinney will deliver his verdict to MSPs next Wednesday - and then invite parliament to choose by voting.
I expect Mr Swinney to attempt to adhere to his manifesto line. Executive sources say the airport link, EARL, is “dead” – and that ministers are also still far from convinced by the trams plan.
It’s hard to be precise at the moment. Depends what the motion is next Wednesday - and whether there are amendments inviting a separate judgement on the trams and EARL.
But, right now, I would guess that parliament might, just, vote to back the trams - but not EARL. For one thing, the Greens support the trams - but oppose a new link rushing folk out to their cheap ozone-threatening flights. For another, the Tories want assurances on a cost cap - and on sorting out the governance issues with EARL.
My guess is that the Black report makes it difficult for parliament to back EARL with any real enthusiasm. But trams are a different story. Executive sources are privately pointing out flaws in the trams scheme - but the Black verdict is fairly generous.
So, if the voting structure allows, trams could get the go-ahead from MSPs. John Swinney (and Alex Salmond before him) stress that ministers can ignore that. Or, to use their language, they note that, constitutionally, the Executive is not bound by ordinary motions in parliament.
That is true. Primary legislation passed by parliament has, as you would expect, the force of law. Binding votes include the choice of first minister - and a confidence motion. However, ordinary, everyday motions don’t force the executive to do anything.
But there’s more. Ministers need a degree of consensus in parliament. With an eye to the autumn spending statement, they don’t need to stir up hostility at Holyrood which might encourage opposition parties to press home their demand for shared control of the executive budget.
Right now, ministers want to dump both transport projects. They don’t like them. They’re against them. But might they just, just be persuaded to let the trams scheme go ahead - in the interests of wider harmony? Depends entirely how parliament votes next week.
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