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'Not quite' D-Day

Brian Taylor | 15:02 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Alex Salmond was at his combative best at first minister's questions.

Offered a target by Labour's Iain Gray, he didn't miss.

Iain Gray had taken the courageous decision to pursue the topic of accelerated capital expenditure. (NB: that is "courageous" in the "Yes Minister" sense.)

The Labour leader spoke well, deploying a range of familiar rhetorical techniques.

However, like A.C. Bradley's analysis of Shakespearean heroes, the venture had a fatal flaw.

Which was that Mr Gray had requested accelerated capital spending from the Treasury - and it had not been forthcoming.

This allowed Mr Salmond to pillory both the Chancellor and the Holyrood Labour leader in a single attack.

'Squandering cash'

He took the opportunity.

According to the FM, the Chancellor had sabotaged the Scottish economy, leaving Mr Gray humiliated in the process.

Broadly, there are two explanations from Team Gray as to why the accelerated capital spending wasn't forthcoming.

Version One is that the PBR wasn't the occasion for accelerated spend.

It was never going to be. D-Day, it was not.

Version Two, which Mr Gray pursued in the chamber today, is that Alex Salmond had ruined the prospect of bringing forward further spending by squandering the cash supplied in an earlier tranche.

Mr Salmond denied this charge and proceeded to list a series of projects which, he said, stood ready for implementation had capital spending been brought forward.

Raising issues

The two points raised by Team Gray are not entirely incompatible: for example, they say now that Mr Salmond must mend his ways in order to allow a subsequent appeal to be made.

But, frankly, they don't sit together all that well.

If, as we are now told, there was no prospect of accelerated spending being considered before the next Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in time for 2011, then why raise the issue with the Treasury in October this year, without making any mention of that time delay?

If time delay is the issue, then why not say so in the chamber? Why major instead on Version Two, the attack on the Scottish government?

Is it conceivable that, when Mr Gray supported capital acceleration on October 29, it was still feasible that the Treasury might entertain such a request?

Apparently, the Treasury subsequently issued an explanatory memorandum in which they made clear that the December statement would concern itself purely with PBR matters - and would not touch at all on the CSR.

It would not, consequently, address capital acceleration.

To be fully fair to Mr Gray, his original statement had stressed that he was arguing for capital acceleration contingent on the Scottish government demonstrating that it would make productive use of such spending, creating jobs.

Seeking blame

His precise phrase was that he would back such a move "if and only if the SNP gets its budget sorted." His line today was that such sorting was absent.

This argument is at least cogent and consistent - although, to emphasise, strenuously countered by Mr Salmond.

But it strikes me that you can't really seek to blame the Scottish government - if there is not and never was any prospect of the Treasury considering the issue at this stage.

One or t'other. Not both.

Which leaves us where? Mr Gray will presumably pursue his claim that the Scottish government has misallocated resources.

He will claim further that the Scottish Futures Trust is an unproductive waste of money.

Mr Salmond will undoubtedly pursue his claim that Scotland has been robbed of resources by the Treasury.

Draft budget

Some figures for you - which might help explain why one side claims Scotland's money has gone up and the other side says it has slumped.

The UK Government points to the Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) for Scotland. That is the cash and capital, calculated via Barnett, which the Scottish government has discretion to spend on services.

At 2009-10 prices and in real terms, DEL for Scotland was £27,425m in 2008/09, £28,375m in 2009/10 and will be £28,738m in 2010/11.

Hence, Iain Gray's statement today that the Scottish government has more to spend next year than this.

However, in the chamber today, Alex Salmond highlighted analysis produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE).

That spotlights the changes to the Scottish budget from UK and Scottish government decisions since the draft budget for 2009/10 was disclosed.

It incorporates the Treasury figure that the consequence of the PBR is to increase the Scottish budget for 10-11 by £23m.

Previous plans

However, it features other consequentials.

The impact of the April Budget, it says, removed £391m from the plans as the Chancellor ordered efficiencies.

The reprofiling pursued by the Scottish government (that previous tranche of accelerated capital which now has to be accounted for) removes £347m from the pot available in 2010-11.

Including other consequentials, they conclude that the change from previous plans is a net reduction of £814.4m.

Hence Mr Salmond's remarks.

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