The stakes couldn’t be higher as the Scottish budget process reaches its climax. For sure, this is the most important budget in our devolved nation’s history, but its consequences for Scotland and her people are a mere sideshow to the card game being played in Parliament this week. Each of the parties is hoping to see off their opponents and scoop the pot at the forthcoming elections. If they play their cards right, victory and the glittering prize of power could be theirs. So what kind of hand are they playing so far?
Sadly, the Scottish Greens have already folded. By voting against the budget at Stage 1, they are now frozen out of negotiations. They claimed they couldn’t vote in principle for a budget that cut housing and invested in roads, nor do they want to be associated with simply passing on the effects of Westminster government cuts to the people. Lofty ideals but in practical terms, the Scottish Greens have chucked it too soon and have missed the chance – perhaps – to extract some concessions from the Scottish Government. It might enable them to attract more of a protest vote but they have proven, once again, that they cannot be considered as serious players.
The Conservatives seem to think they are playing bridge, not brag. Sitting directly opposite their erstwhile partners, it was all nudges and winks and coded language in the Stage One debate. They like the budget – not a lot, but they like it. And as long as they’re dealt a couple of decent second cards, on private sector investment to create jobs and on public service reform, then they’ll be voting with the Government and hoping the electorate will reward them for playing nicely.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are happy with the cards they were first dealt and are sticking to the position they set out right at the start. And it’s a good position with Jeremy Purvis, their finance spokesperson, playing a blinder. They’ve made it quite clear where they want to see concessions and it’s a position that the burd likes, frankly. The increase in the bill for the highest paid for the public sector is obscene. It is an obvious and necessary area to cut. And they’ve played by Swinney’s rules: rather than just making unaffordable demands, they’ve set out what should be cut and where it should be diverted, namely into restoring some of the proposed cuts to college funding so that bursaries for the poorest students can be protected. The Lib Dems are holding a potentially winning hand here. If Swinney is prepared to see them, I suspect, even partially, they’ll support the budget and gain much kudos in the process.
Next comes Labour and if ever there was a player under stress at the table it’s Andy Kerr. He’s the one who cannot keep his poker face, puffing and blowing and mopping his brow. At the first hint of Swinney seeing him in the first round, he demanded a further deal. First, Labour wanted £40 million for a Future Jobs Fund and thousands more guaranteed apprenticeships for young people; by last week, this had grown to include the reinstatement of the Glasgow Airport rail link AND spending on the Commonwealth Games regneration programme. This latter is a bit of a bluff, given that the cuts have been applied by Scottish Enterprise and not by the Scottish Government.
Now I know that in a recent blog I acknowledged the emergence of a coherent Labour narrative on jobs and growth, but Andy Kerr seems to have mislaid the script. There is still the semblance of a strategy but continually shifting the tactics just looks weak and foolish. Labour is still trying to shuffle the pack and is in danger of being beaten at their own game. If they insist on holding out for a new hand that Swinney simply cannot deal, they could find themselves the only party to oppose the budget. In short, Labour could lose.
Then there is Margo. She’s kept her cards close to her chest so far. But no doubt she will soon enter the game and demand an exchange for an Ace of Hearts. A concession for Edinburgh and the Lothians will enable Margo to declare herself happy. It’s worked before and so long as the arithmetic requires her vote, it will work this time too.
Finally, there is the banker, John Swinney. He is happy with the hand he has dealt Scotland and has been steadfast and unflappable in his approach. His game strategy is clear and readily comprehensible: if you want me to deal new cards, concede and hand some back. He’s prepared to listen to all requests but wants to see the colour of the Opposition’s money first. Swinney appears to have learned lessons from the past when he bet the house and nearly lost. It’s not the worst hand he’s dealt the country, in the circumstances, and with a bit of tweaking and dealing of some favourable cards to the Lib Dems and the Tories in this round, it’s probable that he’ll buy their support. One or other might raise him, but ultimately they will see him through the finishing line at Stage three. Especially if he has an ace or two up his sleeve, which the burd believes he has.
So, high stakes indeed and all still to play for. But on this budget, the odds are pretty much stacked against the Opposition parties. No one wants to enter the election campaign at the end of March with the stain of having brought the budget, and possibly the Scottish Government, down.
The SNP Government and Swinney hold the bank and it’s a truism worth repeating: the banker rarely loses.