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Here and now

Brian Taylor | 14:16 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Herewith the latest from Holyrood as MSPs prepare to vote upon the Scottish Government's budget on Wednesday.

Firstly, the presiding officer, Alex Fergusson, has notified party whips that he will use his casting vote AGAINST the new budget if there's a tie when MSPs vote at 5pm tomorrow.

The PO is advising the parties now - to remove at least one element of doubt and speculation from the intense negotations under way right now.

He's following convention - which is that the chair votes for the status quo in the event that a new proposal fails to win assent.

The revised budget counts as a new plan - and so falls within that convention.

Constitutional theorists, I suppose, might query whether Holyrood's support in principle for the new budget at stage one supersedes the status quo of the existing budget.

Against that, it was plain that Labour, for example, only supported the new budget at that stage in order to allow negotiations to proceed. In any event, Mr Fergusson has ruled - entirely in line with past precedent - that he regards the status quo as being the existing 2008/09 budget.

Funding concessions

Secondly, where do the parties stand? The only certainty in a blancmange of bluff and speculation is that the Liberal Democrats will vote "No" on wednesday.

They wanted a 2p cut in income tax. John Swinney would not entertain that. So no deal.

Right now, I think the Tories will vote "Yes" - as they did last year. They want guaranteed new funding for concessions secured last year such as cuts in business rates.

They want extra items such as town centre renewal, action on hospital acquired infection and outward bound training for kids. In all, they want £200m.

I think they'll get it and vote "Yes".

Can Margo MacDonald be persuaded to vote "Yes"? She didn't earlier, even though she's been given concessions on capital status funding for Edinburgh.

She wants more funding flexibility. As ever, it's her call.

Gaining ground

Which leaves the Greens and Labour. They are not remotely comparable in terms of Holyrood seats.

The Greens bring two votes to the negotiating table. Labour brings 46.

But ask yourself this. Politically, which party do you think John Swinney would rather do a deal with? If you answered "Green", you win a coconut or a cigar according to choice.

For two reasons. The SNP would not want the impression to gain ground that they are only able to govern with the temporary tolerance of their long entrenched rivals.

Secondly, Labour is pressing for concessions which are proportionate to their size. In short, they want a lot.

To be fair, Labour's demands are pre-grounded in their own stated economic policies. For example, they want more - much more - to be spent on training and apprenticeships.

They want a guarantee, as per Northern Ireland, that apprentices whose firms go bust will be caught in a state safety net.

Serious discussions

Labour sources dismiss suggestions that they're trying to supplant an SNP budget with a Labour one. A Labour budget, they say, would not be anticipating the introduction of a Local Income Tax, for example.

Rather, they are trying to amend the government's budget.

There have been negotiations between John Swinney and Andy Kerr: serious discussions.

However, perhaps understandably given the scope of the demands, Mr Swinney has not yet moved sufficiently to secure Labour support.

Right now, Labour MSPs are in a mood to vote "No". Unlike last year, they will not abstain.

But then, if Mr Swinney can secure the Greens along with the Tories, he does not need Labour.

The Greens want a huge package of investment in area-based home insulation: that is near universal rather than house by house on the basis of applications.

They will be offered pilots - at a lower cost.

Which is where the negotations are right now.


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