Alex and the art of brinkmanship
HIGH on the fourth floor of the Scottish Parliament, John Swinney was finally able to relax in his ministerial office after a tumultuous two days that saw the most serious political crisis of the SNP's 21 months in office.
"I don't think it was a particularly edifying spectacle," the Finance Secretary admitted on Thursday evening as he reflected on the spectacular defeat of his 33bn Budget the previous day. "I don't think it was Parliament's finest hour," he added.
The sight of Swinney and Alex Salmond in frantic negotiations with Patrick Harvie in the Holyrood debating chamber as the diminutive Green MSP brought their Budget crashing down was more than an undignified reminder of the precarious nature of minority rule. The fact that the votes of two Green MSPs was enough to defeat the Government's single most important piece of legislation was also typical of the high-risk tactics and rollercoaster ride that has been a hallmark of the Salmond/Swinney administration.
That Salmond should be thought of as a seat-of-the-pants politician is perhaps unsurprising given that his love of political gambling is almost as ardent as his love of a flutter on the horses. Swinney, on the other hand, has been regarded as the steady half of the partnership – the safe pair of hands to provide the fine detail while Salmond concentrates on the broad brush strokes.
Last week, however, some of the Salmond's personality had obviously rubbed off his right-hand man when Swinney entered the debating chamber without having nailed down the support of Harvie and his Green Party colleague Robin Harper. Almost every MSP, including Swinney himself, thought the Nationalists had negotiated a deal with Conservatives and the Greens that would squeeze the Budget through. But despite a year and a half of having to deal with the tight arithmetic of the Parliament, Swinney and Salmond had failed to do their homework. "It did come as surprise to me," Swinney confessed, as he looked back on Wednesday's vote. "I thought we had an agreement in place."
What Swinney had failed to realise was that Harvie was becoming increasingly irritated by the high-handed SNP tactics, with its last-minute e-mails, scribbled notes and snatched conversations with Salmond in the parliamentary corridors.
This episode says much about the SNP's style of government, and raises searching questions about the way that Salmond is governing Scotland. In particular, is he paying enough attention to the concessions and compromises necessary if a minority government wants to get anything done?
"The Budget is the one date with destiny that the Government cannot avoid," said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. "The lesson is while it is true that if you run things right down to the wire, you will minimise concessions, you do maximise the danger. Patrick didn't play ball and the whole thing fell down."
The SNP's most severe parliamentary defeat was also an indication of the frustration among Salmond's opponents, fed up with what they see as the SNP's aloofness and what is seen as a penchant for picking fights with Westminster. At the end of last year, Michael MacMahon, Labour's chief whip, held talks with Alex Fergusson, the Presiding Officer, over his concerns that ministers were sidelining MSPs and using their executive powers to bypass Parliament.
"The Budget was another example of this approach," MacMahon said yesterday. "There is no question in my mind that they don't believe that they are a Government. They are a campaign. Everything is about campaigning towards the independence referendum in 2010 or trying to portray themselves as the official opposition to the UK Government.
"The Parliament is just used as a platform for their campaign. We have got no legislation. We have debates on issues that are reserved to Westminster or are not voted on. To me Parliament is being treated with utter contempt."
Barely a week goes by without the Government suffering some form of defeat in Parliament. Notable examples include the Creative Scotland Bill, which was supposed to set up a body to oversee the arts in Scotland, and Kenny MacAskill's ban on shops selling drink to under-21s. The Government's determination to press these measures through in the face of parliamentary opposition has increased the disquiet. This cavalier, go-it-alone attitude was also in evidence, say the opposition, when the SNP controversially announced plans for the 2.3bn Forth road bridge without first establishing whether Westminster was willing to advance them the money.
Added to that was the growing sense of frustration over Salmond's style in the debating chamber – an issue that came to a head last month when the Presiding Officer ordered an inquiry into the "veracity" of ministers' statements to Parliament.
Swinney should recover from this budgetary setback. By dropping their hopelessly unrealistic demand for a 2p cut in income tax, the Liberal Democrats have come to the rescue of the SNP.
Their re-entry into the equation has taken much of the pressure off Swinney, who takes part in a conference-call Cabinet meeting today full of confidence that a major crisis has been averted.
There is even the possibility that Labour will come on board, with its demand for another 15,600 apprenticeships over the next two years appearing to be within the SNP's gift.
Indeed, the second attempt to pass the Budget could very well be passed with support from all parties in the Parliament – a development that would do much to reassure those Scots unimpressed with political wrangling at times of great economic crisis.
"That I think will be welcomed across Scotland," says Swinney, "as there is a lot of unease which we are hearing about throughout public services and the voluntary sector about any form of lengthy delay in resolving the Budget."
But many Holyrood insiders believe Salmond and Swinney will now be forced to take a more consensual approach if their Government is not going to come badly unstuck in the next few months – especially with policies such as local income tax and, crucially for the SNP, an independence referendum still to be dealt with.
The SNP will get neither of these bills through the Parliament without wooing the Liberal Democrats.
Perhaps it is the break-up of the Union that lies at the heart of last week's deal with the Lib Dems, which has seen Salmond agree to engage with the Calman Commission, the body examining Scotland's constitutional position.
"You can't have a referendum without the Lib Dems on board," says Curtice. "It is an open secret that the Liberal Democrats were unhappy with the interim Calman Report in that it didn't go far enough. Are we just beginning to see the first seeds of co-operation between these two parties on some kind of constitutional matter?"
After the drama of the past week, Swinney will no doubt be mightily relieved to see his Budget finally go through Parliament on February 11.
But, according to Curtice, Salmond and Swinney would be well advised to not to take the safe passage of next year's Budget for granted. "The events of this year will probably influence how the SNP approach the Budget next year. This time, I'm sure they will ensure that the votes are there before the final debate starts," he said.
Whether that will happen is another matter entirely. When asked if he thought he had made any mistakes and if he would approach next year's Budget in the same fashion, Swinney was unrepentant.
"I don't think we left things too late," he said. "In the nature of these things you are never going to focus people's minds until you are close to the cut-off point, it's like that in any discussion, whether it's a commercial transaction, a trade union negotiation, a parliamentary negotiation over a budget, you need a deadline to focus people's minds. So inevitably it was going to go up to the wire."
Welcome to life on the Salmond and Swinney rollercoaster.
Countdown to controversy
Mike Rumbles, the Lib Dem chief whip, storms out of meeting with John Swinney, right, saying his party was "extremely disappointed" ministers had ruled out a 2p cut in income tax. Swinney's spokesman tells Rumbles to "get real" because the cut would cost 800m.
Budget Bill passes Stage I – the first parliamentary hurdle – with support from Labour, Greens and Tories. The Lib Dems vote against it.
MSPs on Holyrood's Finance Committee pass Stage II of the Budget Bill.
Swinney warns that failing to pass the 2009-10 Budget will cost the Scottish economy 1.8bn as signs of Labour and Green discontent grow. Patrick Harvie says the ministers have not "grasped the urgency" of his demand for 100m home insulation project. Labour's Andy Kerr says "significant changes" need to be made on the issue of apprenticeships.
2pm: John Swinney enters final Stage III Budget debate confident that he has the support of the Conservatives by offering them a package that includes 60m town centre regeneration, 100m business rates cut, 30m for more police, 40m for free personal care and 8m bus fares subsidy. He also believes that the Greens are onside having originally offered them 22m for insulation then raising the total to 33m.
4.55pm: Harvie discovers that the extra money is recycled cash.
5pm: The Greens vote against the Budget with Labour and the Lib Dems, meaning that 64 MSPs voted for and 64 voted against leaving it up to Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson to use his casting vote. In line with parliamentary convention, Fergusson votes for the status quo and the Budget falls.
5.02pm: The SNP announces that the Bill will be reintroduced.
6pm: The Liberal Democrats release a press release saying that they are now open to Budget talks.
6.15pm: At a press conference with Swinney, Alex Salmond announces that the SNP is on election footing. He also warns that the Government cannot stay in office if the bill fails a second time.
Noon: At First Minister's questions Salmond accuses Labour of risking 35,000 jobs by voting against the Budget. Labour leader Iain Gray accuses Salmond of reckless brinkmanship. SNP go into talks with all the parties – including the previously belligerent Lib Dems.
Budget expected to be passed at second attempt.
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