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Archives for June 2010

Crime and punishment

Brian Taylor | 11:11 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Vigorous - and high value - debate in Holyrood today on the topic of crime and punishment.

With regard to crime, there is common purpose. MSPs are against it.

With regard to punishment, there is substantial - and primarily honourable - division. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is in fine form in the chamber, defending his criminal justice proposals.

As I write, he is arguing that courts should no longer tolerate any excuses founded on misuse of alchol.

Or, to quote Mr MacAskill, relying upon his 20 years experience as a court lawyer, it should no longer be acceptable at all to suggest that "getting bevvied" exculpates an individual.

The justice secretary's critics are currently arguing that this particular measure is unnecessary - as courts already ignore such pleas.

But no matter. To the main division over punishment. The minister wants a legal presumption that courts will no longer impose prison sentences of six months or shorter.
Presumption, note.

'Tough' sentences

This is not an absolute proscription of such sentences.

Mr MacAskill's argument is that such sentences do nothing to tackle reoffending. Indeed, they may enhance the prospect.

He wants "tough community sentences" instead.

Labour is against him. Broadly, they have mustered two arguments. One, that the provision for rehabilitation in the community is patchy at best - and likely to get worse with spending cuts.

Two, that many short sentences are for domestic abuse - and that women's groups fear the consequences of removing, in most cases, prison sentences as the disposal.

The Conservatives are also opposed, largely adopting the "prison works" mantra.

This position has been somewhat challenged by the views expressed today by Kenneth Clarke, the Tory justice secretary at Westminster.

He wants fewer short sentences.

Asked to explain this difference in approach, Baillie Bill Aitken boldly resorted to devolution. It was right and proper that the Scottish Tories adopted their own policy with regard to Scotland's distinct circumstances.

Knife crime

The Liberal Democrats have done a deal with Mr MacAskill.

Instead of a presumption against sentences of six months or shorter, the figure will be three months.

That deal will stick.

There's more. We have now moved on to the issue of knife crime. Labour wants mandatory minimum prison sentences for carrying a blade.

Ministers - and senior police officers - say this approach is wrong. It would be a catch-all and would do little to tackle the underlying knife culture.

The cost of care

Brian Taylor | 14:57 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010


New stats out today confirm the increasing cost of the policy frequently trumpeted as one of Holyrood's flagship achievements; free personal care for Scotland's frail elderly.

The increase is particularly steep with regard to providing free care for those remaining in their own homes, reflecting a trend towards such care.

The cost of that has more than doubled since initial implementation of the policy.

Two caveats to that general picture. The year on year increases in the latest figures are relatively contained: up 0.2% for self-funding residents in care homes and up 3.7% for home care clients.

Secondly, the money devoted to providing free personal care at home might, arguably, be forestalling people from entering residential care and might, arguably, depending on individual circumstances, be thus forestalling other costs upon the public purse.

However, in simple terms, the budget line for free care has increased sharply and much of this is expenditure which previously did not fall to be met by the state at all.

It is new spending. Additional spending.

It seems at least possible that the independent review of spending commissioned by the Scottish government may question such expenditure.

Spending attention

At that point, ministers and Scotland collectively have to decide: is this spending sufficiently vital to Scottish well-being that it must be sustained, despite budgetary cuts?

That applies not just to free personal care.

Indeed, such spending only attracts substantial attention because it is novel, because it is recent.

Such choices could properly be made by ministers and Scotland collectively with regard to all budgetary lines of expenditure.

It strikes me that, in the fact of "unavoidable" cuts (to quote the chancellor), there are two broad strategic options facing Scotland.

We (and, again, this is a collective, not purely ministerial, decision) can shave a fixed percentage off all (or most) Scottish spending.

Alternatively, we can take a close look in the independent review and beyond at whether certain expenditure within departmental remits is merited at all.

Strategic consideration

The former can claim fairness - at least in the rough sense of equal pain (with the exception of health spending which is, apparently, to be spared.)

The downside is that, with such an open-ended approach, it is eminently possible that the "wrong" bits are cut: the axe falling upon vulnerable, front-line services.

The latter can claim discretion in that there is an element of strategic consideration, pre choice.

In practice, a blend of the two must be pursued. With the (now challenged) exception of the NHS, John Swinney will apply cuts generally, on a widespread basis.

That is inevitable, given the extent of the economies being demanded by Danny Alexander (who is meeting MSPs today) and his colleagues.

Within that, however, there will be a search for budgetary lines which can be erased entirely.

It's the Gers

Brian Taylor | 13:13 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Let's talk about Gers.

No, not the footballing outfit defeated by the mighty United on their way to triumph in the Scottish Cup.

Rather we are concerned with Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland, the annual estimate of how much is spent and raised north of the Border.

This is an official document, prepared by Scottish government economists and statisticians.

But, from its foundation by the Conservatives, Gers - or, rather, the interpretation placed thereon - has been sharply political.

In Tory days, the aim of ministers was to demonstrate that self-government would be a fundamental mistake.

How things change. Now the ministers in St Andrew's House are Nationalist and their aim is to show that Scotland could run her own economy, including full control of tax and spending.

Budget surplus

John Swinney believes that today's official report, which covers 2008-09, proves just that.

You will, I feel sure, be astonished to learn that Labour's Andy Kerr places exactly the opposite interpretation upon the selfsame figures.

How so? Let us dip a toe into the sums. For 2008-09, the official calculation is that Scotland had a current budget surplus of £1.3bn or 0.9% of GDP.

That includes, as in the past, a geographical share of North Sea oil revenues being allocated to Scotland.

For the same period, the UK had a current budget deficit of £48.9bn or 3.4% of GDP.

That includes the allocation of 100 per cent of North Sea oil revenues.

QED, says John Swinney. Scotland was in a stronger position in that year - and the three preceding - than the UK as a whole.

Investment spending

Aha, say critics, but that doesn't tell the full story. How about capital spending? Why is that not included?

Andy Kerr is in trenchant mood. "Are the SNP proposing to close down the NHS and educate children at home?"

No, say ministers, they are not. As in the past, capital and investment spending is listed in a separate section.

Taking that into account, Scotland had a net fiscal deficit of £3.8bn in the year in question, some 2.6% of GDP.

Does that prove penury? No, say ministers. The comparable figures for the UK as a whole are £96.1bn and 6.7%.

Further, they say the Scottish figure compares favourably with OECD nations as a whole.

More criticism. Andy Kerr says Gers calculates oil on a geographical basis - but only allocates a share of the banking bail out to Scotland on a per capita basis, "effectively denying the central role of RBS and Bank of Scotland in the crisis".

Banking bailout

In other words, Gers substantially underplays the value of the UK bank rescue to Scotland.

No, say ministers. Oil is rightly allocated on a geographic basis. It is a naturally occurring asset which benefits those where it is found.

The per capita calculation for the banks is entirely in line with other such sums.

For example, Scotland is only allocated a per capita assessment of corporation tax while RBS was contributing hugely to the UK Treasury during its years of plenty.

Plus, say ministers, the banking bail out was not Scottish. It included the Halifax bit of HBOS plus Northern Rock.

It was done to benefit the UK economy. Per capita is right.

Criticism number three. It is wrong, says Andy Kerr, to "mortgage Scotland's future on the price of oil".

Bolster economy

He notes that global oil prices were at a record high in 2008 but have since fallen back.

Scotland could not found a stable economy on a fluctuating and, by definition, wasting asset.

In response, SNP ministers say that an independent Scotland, like Norway, could have invested oil revenues in an account to bolster the economy long-term.

Even now, they say, such a move would be possible although, self-evidently, far more limited than would have been possible in the past.

Further, they argue that the picture painted by Gers as a whole - including a share of oil - contrasts with the poorer figures for the UK.

The cuts are coming

Brian Taylor | 15:38 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


Certainty. That VAT rise, the cuts in benefits, the restoration of the pension earnings link, the increase in capital gains, the reduction in corporation tax.

Imponderable. The precise details of public spending - including, even, the overall total for the Scottish block because that is dependent upon Whitehall negotiations which are about to get under way.

But even within that imponderable we can be certain of one thing. Scottish public spending is about to fall and fall sharply.

As an advance guide, the chancellor indicated that non-protected Whitehall departments could expect to experience a cut of around 25% over four years.

However, that does not necessarily translate directly to Scotland because one of the protected Whitehall departments is health (the other being international aid).

Health accounts for roughly a third of the Scottish total. Hence, if that protection applies fully in England, then that should have a mitigating effect upon the Scottish calculations - because Barnett works by averaging out the rise and fall in comparable English departmental budgets.

But Treasury, Scotland Office and Scottish government all stress that it is far too early to start making detailed calculations based on such flimsy substance.

Cash terms

The Comprehensive Spending Review round (with the Scottish government playing a part) will determine the allocation of cash across Whitehall.

Then, when that is concluded in the autumn, we will know the impact upon Scotland.

But, even if we do not know the final destination in cash terms, we already know the direction of travel. Downwards.

Next, for Scotland, consider a couple of contrasting announcements.

Scottish start-up companies will be among those to benefit from a scheme of partial exemption from employers' NI payments.

It's aimed at nations and regions outwith the relatively prosperous south-east of England.

That's been welcomed - while there's been anger voiced at the decision to scrap a proposed assistance scheme for the video games industry which has its base in Dundee.

Welfare cuts

Next, the politics. It has been intriguing to witness the extent to which the criticism from opponents has been aimed at the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition.

The calculation, presumably, is that the LibDems feel intuitively less comfortable with cuts to welfare than Conservatives.

Consequently, the belief is that the LibDems might be more vulnerable to being prised away from support for the necessity of the tough measures announced by George Osborne.

In that regard, the various "goodies" announced by Mr Osborne are crucial in sustaining coalition support.

Among these may be counted the move to take the lowest earners out of income tax (author, Vince Cable); and the measure to help the poorest families via tax credit.

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.

Cultural encounters

Brian Taylor | 14:33 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The verdict on Frank McAveety at Holyrood?

There's some anger with him, some sympathy for him, some exasperation that he was foolish - again.

But there is an over-arching view that he had to step down as the convener of the public petitions committee following his sotto voce comments appraising "an attractive girl" who was attending his committee as an observer.

To be blunt, it is the job of the convener to ensure that his committee is running smoothly and efficiently. Not to ogle members of the audience.

Still less should he be offering a brief running commentary to the committee clerk, to the effect that the woman in question was "dusky" and "the kind you'd see in a Gauguin painting".

Adding "there's a bit of culture" only made it worse.

He is an intriguing character, Mr McAveety. A former English teacher and twice, briefly, a Minister, he can converse intelligently about politics and culture one moment - before slipping all too easily into the mode of a laddish rascal the next.

Late arrival

It is as if these two characteristics compete for prominence in his personality, in Manichean fashion.

By common consent, he had done a notably good job at public petitions - expanding the committee's role of linking parliament and people.

But the ex-convener has form. He it was who, as a minister, explained his late arrival in the chamber by claiming he had been at a cultural encounter.

He had, in fact, been scoffing a pie in the Holyrood canteen.

That, supposedly, led to him being billed as "the pieman" in some quarters of his native Glasgow.

Plain speaking

Brian Taylor | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


Hugh Henry MSP has a well-merited reputation for plain speaking.

As convener of Holyrood's Audit Committee, he was unhappy with the circumlocutions on offer from Scotland's most senior civil servant.

To be frank, Mr Henry thought that Sir John Elvidge was talking "b******t". So he said so. He and his committee were commended as a result in The Herald's Politician of the Year Awards.

On other issues - such as pleural plaques - Mr Henry has displayed a tendency towards dogged determination and a disinclination to accept platitudinous assurances.

So, when he criticises his own party, he merits attention. And, as billed, he does so in notably blunt fashion.

The Paisley South MSP is unhappy with the arrangements for electing a new Labour leader.

He notes that the electoral college to choose the new boss comprises one third Parliamentarians; one third party members; and one third affiliated organisations (primarily trades unions.)

'Unfair and undemocratic'

Snag for Mr Henry is that the chosen Parliamentarians are MPs and MEPs. There is no distinctive role for MSPs.

By contrast, Mr Henry notes that MPs and MEPs have a privileged place in the election for Labour's leader in the Scottish Parliament. Alongside MSPs, of course.

According to Mr Henry, this is "grossly unfair". He goes further. It is "unacceptable, unfair and undemocratic". I think we may conclude that he is unhappy.

Mr Henry argues that this can be remedied in one of two ways: either MSPs join the electoral college in the contest for the overall party leader; or MPs and MEPs lose their privileged status in the Scottish ballot. (Mr Henry favours the latter.)

His complaint reflects a wider issue within Labour. After more than ten years of the Scottish Parliament, it remains arguably the least devolved of all the major parties.
The SNP, of course, are an entirely Scottish party.

The Liberal Democrats have a federal set-up: Tavish Scott is leader of the Scottish party, including MPs.

The Scottish Tories are grappling with the issue of extending their existing autonomy as part of their current review. But Annabel Goldie is Scottish Conservative leader - not "leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament."

When Iain Gray was elected Labour's Holyrood leader, the various contenders suggested a range of ways in which Labour's Scottish autonomy might develop.

As I recall, Mr Gray indicated that the position would develop organically: that his election by the wider party would steadily entrench the status of his role and thus of the
Scottish party within the wider Labour movement.

It would appear that Hugh Henry wants to give that development a bit of a shove.

Pushing treacle up a hill

Brian Taylor | 14:20 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010


Perhaps they all need a holiday. There was a marked resemblance today between first minister's questions and the enervating task of pushing treacle up a hill.

Watching from the gallery, the would-be Labour leader David Miliband. Perhaps his party has opted for election by ordeal; a modern version of the labours of Hercules.

Indeed, the only moment when the exchanges came, briefly, to life was when they were discussing holidays. Or, specifically, one holiday.

Tavish Scott who leads the Liberal Democrats mused satirically on a letter from the FM exhorting councils to mark St Andrew's Day with a school holiday.

Were there not, Mr Scott suggested, more pressing matters in connection with education? Such as . . . education.

In response, Alex Salmond questioned Mr Scott's patriotism, in decidedly droll fashion, pausing only to take a comparably dry pop at Murdo "Bannockburn" Fraser who has urged Scots to pay more attention to their greatest victory over the Auld Enemy.

And that, pretty much, was that.

Solid and prolonged

Admittedly, there were weighty exchanges between the FM and Iain Gray / Annabel Goldie. They concerned, respectively, business rates and public spending.

Serious matters worthy of serious consideration. But did the discussion of them have to be so solid and prolonged?

As the Salmond / Gray interlocution entered its second millennium, the presiding officer Alex Fergusson suggested mildly that they might care to speed it up a little.

Annabel Goldie tried hard, claiming that the Scottish Government had "secret" plans for potential cuts.

Customarily, the word "secret" acts on journalists like catnip on a feline. Not this time.

As Mr Salmond explained the procedure for determining spending plans, you could almost feel the life oozing from the chamber.

Then again, perhaps I need a holiday.

Dearly departing

Brian Taylor | 16:36 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010


And so the number of the departing is increased by one. Rather a significant one at that.

Andrew Welsh of the SNP has indicated that he will not contest the Holyrood elections next year.

Mr Welsh was first elected to Westminster in October 1974: the second General Election that year, the one which brought the SNP a full football team of MPs.

That alone would give him a place in Nationalist history. More than that, though, Andrew Welsh has been throughout his career a quietly and thoroughly effective parliamentarian, subjecting governments of all colours to scrutiny on behalf of his constituency and nation.

Latterly, he deployed those talents at Holyrood as convener of the finance committee, stressing the importance of evidence-based argument.

However, alongside that role and that demeanour comes a deep commitment to his fundamental political cause.

Andrew Welsh was and is a passionate Nationalist.

Considerable characters

Those others who are standing down will perhaps forgive me for singling out the Angus MSP in this way.

I have known him since he was a tyro politician and I was a youthful political journalist, both of us in the north-east of Scotland.

But the list of the departing does indeed contain considerable characters and substantial experience.

One thinks of "Baillie" Bill Aitken, easily one of the most diligent and focused members of the present parliament.

Or Jamie Stone, whose contributions frequently enlighten and enliven.

Or Jim Mather, who has brought a real knowledge of the business world to Holyrood.

Or Dr Ian McKee, with his medical expertise.

Great scarf

Or Cathy Jamieson and Margaret Curran, who have contributed substantially at Holyrood as ministers and front benchers but who have now opted to pursue their political careers at Westminster.

Or Robin Harper, thoughtful, energetic, dedicated. Great "Dr Who" scarf, too.

To those I have forgotten, apologies. To those who will be "stood down" by the voters in due course, advance sympathy.

To those who are leaving voluntarily, salutations.

Meeting of minds

Brian Taylor | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010


The committee may be joint but the ministers taking part have decidedly different perspectives.

For David Cameron, the JMC which meets today is part of his respect agenda: taking the devolved institutions seriously; working in consort with the devolved administrations.

With regard to Scotland, this serves two purposes. It helps to counter the lingering impression that the Tories are remote from Scotland, "other than Scottish": an impression reinforced when they previously stood out against Scottish self-government.

Secondly, for the prime minister, it contrives to sidestep the small problem that the Tories have but one MP in Scotland.

No, they can say, we are not governing Scotland as a tiny minority north of the Border.

We are working co-operatively with the elected SNP Scottish Government. Helps too that their coalition partners have more Scottish seats than the SNP.

For the Nationalists? Perhaps three distinct purposes.

Subordinate cause

Firstly, it underlines the status of the devolved government.

The JMC fell into disuse in the early days of devolution partly because Labour minister (in Westminster) talked informally to Labour minister (in Edinburgh) - but also because the Whitehall world-view featured Holyrood as a department, rather than a government: as a subordinate cause.

Secondly, Alex Salmond plans to use the JMC to press for specific concessions on spending: for example, the demand that the devolved territories should get their Barnett consequential share of money spent regenerating London off the back of the Olympics.

Expect the UK Government to make concessions, where possible, but also to evangelise on the need for spending cuts.

Thirdly, the JMC fits with Mr Salmond's longer term strategy - which is to work consensually and sensibly within the existing UK structure while simultaneously inviting the people of Scotland to conclude that much more could be done with enhanced powers and, ultimately, independence.

Turning it down from 11

Brian Taylor | 15:28 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010


Have you noticed a change in tone from Alex Salmond at first minister's questions?

More precisely, a change in volume.

No more skelping his opponents all over the shop with bombast and barbed insults. No more finger jabbing: the digits stay down by his side.

To be frank, I had wondered whether he was a bit below par, a mite weary: which would be understandable given the point in the Parliamentary calendar.

By common consent, the recess cannot come soon enough.

But no. I am assured by insiders that the switch is a deliberate strategy and follows an internal discussion as to what attracts and what repels the voting public.

It is felt that an understated note of concern better matches the mood, post the UK general election and pre the next round of cuts.

SNP Swear box

The public, it is thought, don't want political anger, they want pragmatic action.

In a sense, it is back to the approach which Alex Salmond adopted in the run-up to the 2007 Holyrood elections.

Then, you may recall, the SNP team had the equivalent of a swear box: transgressors had to chip in a coin every time they delivered a negative statement, a comment which departed from the party's avowedly positive approach.

In normal circumstances, Mr Salmond would have had to take out a standing order to meet his fines. But he exercised self-restraint.

Now, he and his team have seemingly calculated once more that the voters are weary of raucous political argument.

Turn down the volume, the theory goes, and the people may listen more carefully and consequently may absorb the Scottish Government's message more thoroughly.

Certainly, the change was evident at Holyrood today. Labour's Iain Gray vigorously pursued the FM over the impact of public spending constraint.

Well-worded attack

One might question why Mr Gray majored on teacher training, consigning NHS jobs - the issue of the day - to a secondary point.

Presumably, it was felt this would wrong-foot Mr Salmond.

However, the pursuit was effective. Yet, either way, Mr Salmond declined to rise to what was a well-worded attack.

Even when Mr Gray personalised the issue with a neat touch of satire about the Education Secretary Mike Russell, Mr Salmond kept the decibels down.

In general, Labour will seek to pin the blame for particular cuts upon decisions taken by Scottish Ministers.

Mr Salmond's objective, it seems, will be to repeat a series of key points: that the cuts now and to come can be traced to Labour's overall handling of the UK economy; that SNP Ministers will seek to minimise the damage to public services; and, thirdly, that Labour walked away from the prospect of forming an alternative UK coalition government.

I do not believe that "yah" and indeed "boo" are now to be expunged for ever from the Holyrood lexicon.

But, it seems, the tone may have changed.

Question time

Brian Taylor | 16:22 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010


All in all, not a bad opening performance by David Cameron, facing questions in the House for the first time as PM.

Silent by his side, Nick Clegg, experiencing, also for the first time, the physical subordination of being the junior partner in the coalition.

Mr Clegg, mostly, maintained an image of beatific stoicism, grimacing only very slightly when his colleague referred to the prospect of the Liberal Democrats nobly abstaining on an issue which divides the new chums, that of married tax allowances.

There were stumbles, of course. The new PM, one feels, will soon lose the habit of thanking Honourable Members from the other side for their contribution.

There were murmurs of discontent when Mr Cameron said he had yet to decide whether to sustain an industrial support package for a constituency in the north-east of England.

Looking slightly shocked for a moment, the PM declared that he intended to pursue the novel approach of telling the truth in his replies.

He would, he said, write to the MP in question.

Initial anonymity

The exchanges with Harriet Harman, Labour's stand-in leader, were serious and substantive. No surprise there given that they dealt with the Israeli interception of the aid flotilla and the issue of rape prosecutions.

Mr Cameron criticised the first - as a declared "friend of Israel". And he argued the case with Ms Harman on the point of whether those accused of rape should be granted initial anonymity.

No time today, though, for matters Caledonian. The Speaker chose not to call a questioner from the Scottish National Party.

The SNP has argued that, in the new House of Commons, it should occupy the "third party" slot previously held by the now-silent Nick Clegg.

They have yet to gain any such assurance from the Speaker, John Bercow. On today's evidence, it will be a no.

After Harriet Harman, Mr Bercow opted for a senior backbench Liberal Democrat, Sir Alan Beith of Berwick who touched on the role of the private sector in his patch. (The PM had said during the election campaign that the public sector was too big in certain areas of the country.)

There followed a series of Labour and Conservative backbenchers - plus Nigel Dodds from the DUP who asked about protection for troops.

Common enemy

Is there a potential pattern there? The DUP have eight seats, two more than the SNP. Will the SNP be invited to provide the alternative opposition contribution next time out?

Incidentally, there was one Scottish contribution. Labour's Ian Davidson rose magisterially to hail Mr Cameron as "comrade Premier".

With scarcely a pause, he explained. "Are we not all in this together?", he declared, with a grin. Were we not, he asked his fellow MPs, about the business of "strengthening the union of the United Kingdom"?

Moving swiftly on, he discerned a common enemy, stating that it was right and proper to "distrust and despise the Liberal Democrats".

Mr Davidson was about to move to his main point - aircraft carrier orders - when the Speaker reminded him that the topic under discussion was Afghanistan. Suitably chided, he sat down.

Ministerial satisfaction

Brian Taylor | 17:13 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010


The job of opposition is, of course, to oppose.

Therefore, it is perhaps understandable that Labour's Richard Baker contrives to find gloom in today's announcement that police numbers in Scotland have reached an all-time high.

Understandable, if a mite curmudgeonly. He berates the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill for "boasting about police numbers."

Given that Mr MacAskill's sundry opponents - prominent among them Baker, J. - have repeatedly pressed the minister on this matter in the past, it seems a little rough that he is now, apparently, to be criticised for noting the improvement in figures.

The Scottish government, in cohort with the Conservatives, promised one thousand extra police officers during their term in office.

They are on course to deliver same.

Wider debate

In such circumstances, we might permit the minister a passing smile of contentment, if not a full-blown Peter Pan style crow.

Mr Baker makes a reasonable point - which is that the new recruitment must be maintained.

On the day, however, that is understandably lost beneath the sound of satisfaction at a target attained, thus far.

Longer term, there is a wider debate about whether public expenditure of this kind will be sustainable, about whether policing is a leading priority ahead of competitors.

But, for today, let us allow Mr MacAskill a little, quiet ministerial satisfaction.

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