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Banter, badinage and bickering

Brian Taylor | 12:51 UK time, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Questions to the first minister frequently offer intriguing moments.

Banter, badinage, bombast, bickering. Today we witnessed the spectacle of cross-party negotiation on the topic of the budget.

Not between Alex Salmond and Patrick Harvie, the Green Party co-convener, whose decisive vote last night thwarted the Scottish Government's budget.

Rather the tentative dealing featured Mr Salmond and Tavish Scott, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

How can this be? Didn't the Liberal Democrats effectively rule themselves out of negotiations by demanding a 2p cut in income tax - up with which ministers would not put?

Well, yes, they did - but now they're back in the room. Mr Scott noted that there might be scope for discussion of longer-term economic objectives.

Mr Salmond's tone in response was notably emollient, while expressing the hope that the 2p tax cut was buried, arguing that it would cost more jobs in lost expenditure than it would create.

Dissing the budget

Which means what? It means the Lib Dems won't set out a shopping list for the budget.

No litany of ten bob on this, £100m on that.

For two reasons. One, it wouldn't be credible for the Lib Dems after they dissed the budget so comprehensively.

Two, because any new concessions to the Lib Dems would run the risk of unravelling deals elsewhere in this highly tentative process.

By "long term", Mr Scott means items like the lack of borrowing powers for the Scottish Government: an issue currently being examined by the Calman Commission.

The Lib Dem leader envisages Mr Salmond might formally join the pressure for such powers to be established.

Intriguingly, the first minister might find that he has a willing ear for such a notion from his own government's permanent secretary.

Gand talks

In return, perhaps the Scottish Government might invite Mr Scott to join strategic thinking on future spending priorities - such as how to cope with an expected downturn in expenditure in 2010-11.

If such Grand Design talks get under way, then, who knows, Mr Scott might find his way clear to supporting the 2009-10 budget or at least abstaining to ensure its passage.
What then of the offer to the Greens on home insulation - which started at £22m and reached £33 million minutes before the 5pm vote?

Some on the Nationalist backbenches might be tempted to advise the Greens to raffle themselves - if they could reach an alternative deal with the Liberal Democrats.
Wiser counsel calls for caution.

Firstly, they might still need the Greens this year. Secondly, they might well need them next year. Thirdly, the plan for home insulation is viewed by ministers as rather a good one, albeit costly.

Why was there no agreement with the Greens? SNP ministers thought they had a deal.

They thought that Mr Swinney's personal assurance that he, as a government minister, would ensure that the top-up £11m would be levered in from other sources was enough.

It might have been enough for another party. But this is to mistake the nature of the Greens at grassroots level: a phrase of particular salience in their case.

Umpteen penalties

They are, by nature, idealistic rather than bluntly pragmatic.

I called them "faintly anarchic" on Newsnight. Perhaps a more apt description is apolitical. (My excuse is that I was still in shock after the umpteen penalties at Hampden.)

Patrick Harvie may have wanted to cut a deal. But he needed time - much more time than the parliamentary schedule permitted - to square his party.

In the bygoing, Labour remains adamant it will re-enter serious negotiations with John Swinney. That is regardless of the sharp exchanges between Mr Salmond and Iain Gray at question time.

It is felt those things had to be said - and don't pre-empt back-room discussion.

So, to sum up, the most probable outcome is that there will still be some form of deal to pass the budget. Election deferred.

But don't stake your house on it just yet.


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