Alex Massie

Holyrood Drama! For Real!

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So, what to make of yesterday's drama at the Scottish Parliament? First things first: it's good to have some actual drama. Secondly, the failure to pass a budget marks the first real defeat for Alex Salmond's minority administration since the SNP squeaked a victory in the 2007 elections. Mr Salmond's many enemies will revel in seeing him be embarrassed for once.

What did it come down to? In a £33bn (itself a monstrous sum) budget the bill was lost for want of a measly £11m. The Green party - both of them - had demanded £100m a year for ten years to insulate every loft in Scotland. The SNP, not unreasonably, suggested this was not the most pressing of concerns and offered a £22m

bribe

sum instead. Not good enough, replied the Greens, who demanded £33m instead. OK, said John Swinney, the kind of finance minister who looks and sounds like a Scottish bank manager from the days when Scottish bankers were generaly viewed as sound, sensible fellows, I'll see that we get that done. Not good enough, protested the Greens who wanted "reassurances" that all this additional £11m would be "new" money. So they voted No, making the final vote 64-64 and requiring the Presiding Officer to cast his vote with the status quo  - ie, vote No so that last year's budget provisions will just be carried over into this year. For the time being.

What upset the Greens, it seems, was the feeling that they were being taken for granted. Salmond assumed (one assumes) that the eco-warriors would come to their senses and endorse the budget. After all, the initial offer for loft insulation had been a derisory £4m and now they were getting £22 and, later, £33m. Such high-handedness seems to have been received poorly by the Greens. The mouse decided to, if not roar, then at least make some noise.

Loft-cladding! Yes really. Such are the wighty matters upon which the affairs of state stand or fall. I can't think of anything like it since Garret Fitzgerald's Fine Gael ministry fell over a proposal to put VAT on childrens shoes back in 1980s Ireland.

The SNP claim that failing to pass a new budget will result in a £1.8bn cut in public spending. Back-of-an-envelope calculations say this equates to 35,000 jobs. Maybe. Some might think that given the bloated nature of public spending north of the border such a cut might be welcome. But not at Holyrood where small government is an alien concept, even to the Tories.

So Salmond says he will resign if he cannot pass a budget at the second attempt. This would not, however, automatically tigger an election. Labour and the Lib Dems could plausibly form a minority coalition ministry of their own, though my own advice to them would be that these are better times to be in opposition than in power.

Il Tartanissimo (to borrow Mr Eugenides's admirable label) seems to be in a state of middling to high dudgeon. But Salmond only has himself to blame. Having

bought off

brought the Tories on board with £60m for town centre "regeneration" it was careless in the extreme to have failed to make sure of the Green votes. Some, actually many, would put it down to arrogance rather than mere carelessness.

Will there be an election? I hae ma doots as we say up here, not least because I doubt any of the parties can truly afford a fresh campaign right now. But having tried an failed Salmond and Swinney are now in a markedly weaker position. If the opposition parties have any sense they will increase their demands, knowing that the Nats are playing a weak hand. It's always tough when your bluff is called.

For all that the Nats blame the Greens for their (admittedly surprising) behaviour, it's hard to see the electorate being terribly impressed by the idea of fresh elections. I suspect the punters would blame the SNP, not obstructionist opposition parties for the hassle of a fresh poll. The SNP are the ones who are supposed to be getting things done, not the Greens. For that reason, I doubt Salmond's threat will come to anything.

One more prediction: now that the Lib Dems have dropped their proposal for a 2p cut in income tax, no-one should be surprised if Britain's most shameless political party swaps sides and cuts a deal with the Nationalists. If that happens then the Greens will, one assumes, receive precisely nothing.

Anyway, there will be another vote on a new budget next month. Clearly the best outcome would be to follow the Belgian example and see how we'd get on without a government at all for, say, the next six months but, alas, that won't happen either.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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