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Here one minute . . .

Brian Taylor | 13:24 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010

We had a launch on the Clyde today but not from one of the great river's remaining yards.

This was the "launch" of the Liberal Democrats' campaign in Scotland.

Of course, such a despatch is scarcely required. The campaign has been going for months. However, I suppose formalities must be observed.

Nick Clegg arrived late - and left a little too early for some of my Scottish journalistic colleagues who had wanted to ask a few more questions.

Both phenomena are customary in elections.

But still he had sufficient time to warn that the Tories would be obliged to increase VAT in order to fund their promises.

And to dismiss Alex Salmond as a "two bit" player in the context of this Westminster election.

Contemporary politics

Firstly, tax. It appears plain that the Tory offer to reverse most of next year's National Insurance increase is providing this campaign with all its early energy.

In truth, it is a relatively modest dispute. I stress, relatively. That is not to downplay the significance of the Tories' electoral offer but simply to note that, in the wider economic scheme of things, it is a comparatively small distinction.

That is, however, the nature of contemporary politics. In the absence of huge ideological arguments, relatively small disputes gain additional importance.

The LibDems, like Labour, believe that the Tory plan is uncosted and unaffordable. Vince Cable has gone further and described the Labour measure as a bad scheme - but one that cannot be reversed at this stage, given the state of the deficit.

The SNP has now broadened the debate, arguing that services could be jeopardised or damaged by Labour's hike in NI because it would fall to be paid by public sector employers and staff.

Labour's response is that a previous increase in NI caused no apparent damage to jobs - although that was at a time of relative prosperity.

Labour argues further that, by next year when the increase is imposed, the economy is expected to be growing well. (As witness, the OECD report on UK prospects.)

Still, the Tory initiative is driving the campaign at this early stage - with the others obliged to respond.

UK mandate

Also campaigning in Scotland today, William Hague of the Tories dismissed suggestions that VAT would rise and advised Mr Clegg to drop his claims.

Mr Hague also said that it would be an "important component" of a Conservative UK Government to have a "strong" presence north of the Border.

That is interesting in that it finesses the argument that a UK mandate is a UK mandate (c. Annabel Goldie and others.)

While arithmetically and constitutionally true, Mr Hague is acknowledging that the governing UK party would want to have a real presence in both the signatory nations of the Treaty of Union.

Re the Clegg comments on Mr Salmond. This is a somewhat blunter version of earlier attempts by the LibDems and others to insist that the SNP has no locus in this Westminster contest.

Indeed, it is reminiscent of the sort of jibe that used to be cast in the direction of past Liberal leaders.


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