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Assuage and parry

Brian Taylor | 15:56 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010

There have been times, in truth, when relations between Holyrood and Westminster have been less than amicable.

This should not come as a particular surprise. They are different, even to some extent rival, institutions, competing for public attention.

Today, however, was different. The new Scottish secretary, Michael Moore, offered an exercise in smooth diplomacy as he met senior MSPs at Holyrood.

Respect? This was adoration. He smiled, he assuaged, he parried. Every word, every gesture was designed to assure the MSPs of their elevated place in the political firmament.

In essence, Mr Moore followed a dual strategy. He closed nothing down with regard to the individual topics pursued by the committee conveners and business managers in his audience.

Fossil fuel levy cash? We're on to it and are sympathetic. Scotland's voice in Europe? Ditto.

At the same time, he had an extremely blunt message to deliver with regard to public spending.

Awkward questions

The body politic, he said, was dealing with "brutal stuff" in terms of the deficit and the action needed to address it.

For the avoidance of doubt, he repeated this tough message at various points during the exchanges.

This was an assured performance by the new secretary of state. He contrived to sound both collaborative and purposeful - while, in practice, giving nothing away.

He faced awkward questions on Calman - both from the MSPs and, subsequently, from the wicked media.

His message was that, if it proved necessary, the UK Government was prepared to alter and enhance elements of the Calman package on new powers for Holyrood.

However, that did not in any way mean that Calman had been ditched - or that the debate started from zero. Calman was the core. Calman was government policy.

Questioned by the media, Mr Moore indicated that Calman itself represented a compromise. His own Liberal Democrats, he conceded, had favoured further taxation powers.

Budget thinking

But their manifesto had featured Calman and it was the function of coalitions to pursue agreed positions.

Back, finally, to spending. Chancellor George Osborne will spell out his Budget thinking on Tuesday. But, with regard to spending, that is the beginning, rather than the end.

It's thought the Chancellor will set out the Total Managed Expenditure for the UK for the next three or four years.

What the UK Government plans to spend. That will indicate how quickly they plan to shrink the deficit and debt.

Within that, he may indicate what percentage will be devoted to Annually Managed Expenditure - that is demand-led spending on items like pensions and benefits - and what percentage goes to discretionary spending by individual departments.

Those are Departmental Expenditure Limits.

There then follows detailed face to face negotiations involving the Whitehall departments and the Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander.

Protecting health

We get the outcome of that in the autumn statement following the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Only then will we know the shape of future Scottish spending. That is because the Scottish total is dependent on Barnett comparisons with Whitehall departments which handle matters which are devolved to Scotland.

For example, if health is protected (devolved) and defence slashed (reserved), then Scotland's budget gains a relative advantage. If it's the other way get the concept.

After we get the broad Scottish total, Finance Secretary John Swinney can begin the process of settling Scottish departmental spending in detail although he can, of course, start working on assumptions after we get the UK TME on Tuesday.

It's expected that Mr Swinney's department will be consulted during the CSR as to priorities - rather than simply being told the outcome after the process.

Ministers at Holyrood are hopeful that this promise by the UK Government will be delivered. Respect and all that.

PS: At least one MSP was unhappy with Mr Moore. Or, more accurately, with the arrangements for meeting him. Margo MacDonald had hoped to participate to represent her own enthusiastically independent approach.

There had been a minor rammy behind the scenes as to whether the meeting should involve conveners, business managers or both.

In the event, a settlement was wisely reached - but still without a place for the Lothian MSP.

Margo, who manages her own business extremely expeditiously, remains discontented and is now writing to the Holyrood authorities seeking clarification before any such meeting recurs.


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