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Courageous stuff

Brian Taylor | 14:47 UK time, Thursday, 23 April 2009

I expect you are all huge fans of "Yes Minister". Do you recall the episode when Sir Humphrey characterises a ministerial decision as "courageous"?

Does that mean, asks the eager Hacker, that it is a good and wise decision? There follows a solemn shake of the mandarin head.

Iain Gray was in "courageous" mood at first minister's questions today.

Not only did he lead off on the chancellor's Budget but he sought to turn it into an attack on Alex Salmond.

You know, he didn't do at all badly, given the relative dearth of ammunition and the less than adulatory reception which has greeted the Westminster statement.

Mr Gray accused the FM of cutting services in sensitive areas, in advance of any plans produced by the chancellor.

Blame for these, he said, could not be laid at the door of the 2010-11 spending plans.

Real terms

An alert observer might suggest they were down rather to earlier restraint announced by the Treasury - but let us set that aside for now. On the day, it was a sterling effort.

Further, he said that the budget for Scotland had actually increased in cash terms - and, Labour argues, fractionally in real terms.

It was courageous stuff indeed. For two reasons.

Firstly, when Alex Salmond fought back with his customary vigour, he was citing not SNP figures - but statistics produced both by his own officials and by the Treasury.

Mr Salmond directed Iain Gray to Page 241 of the Treasury Red Book. When John Swinney gave the first reaction yesterday, he was bolstered by two senior officials from the Scottish Government.

Secondly, on the day in the chamber, Mr Salmond's analysis was explicitly backed by Annabel Goldie for the Tories.

She too talked of a "Labour squeeze" - before challenging Mr Salmond to say what he proposed to do now. Of which, of course, more later.

Plain and simple

How to explain the different interpretations. Firstly, Labour Ministers and Holyrood politicians tend to take the phrase "efficiency savings" at face value.

SNP ministers say that a reduction ordered by the Treasury - with the cash going back to the Treasury - is a cut, plain and simple.

Secondly, on the real terms point.

Labour says that the claim of a real terms reduction is based upon the fact that substantial capital expenditure has been brought forward from next year to this - giving the appearance that the 2010/11 budget features a reduction.

Scottish Government ministers say what counts is the available expenditure.

Money was brought forward under Treasury encouragement and fiat. It cannot be spent twice.

Consequently, there is a real terms cut. Hope that helps.


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