If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table

Like most people who work in politics, I have spent the last few days, weeks and months trying to figure out if Theresa May has any kind of long-term strategy for how to handle Brexit and, if she does, what that might be.

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Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Also like a lot of people who work in politics, I tend to find myself reaching for some kind of comparison for political drama or documentary to explain what I think.  That is often West Wing or Yes Minister.

In this case, however, it is the new version of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.  In that show there is a recurring line which Frank Underwood uses to explain why he takes what at first glance seems like illogical or risky actions – “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”

That is the closest I have come so far to trying to explain what Theresa May might be up to.  Here is Prime Minister, previously regarded by many as a steady, safe pair of hands – winning the Conservative Party leadership by virtue of being the only candidate not to make a stupid mistake.

And yet, her approach to the upcoming Brexit negotiations and her dealings over a possible second Scottish independence referendum have seemed more the actions of a spoilt teenager, taking intractable black or white positions.  This has often seemed unreasonable and surely doomed to fail, afterall where is the famous British strength of negotiation and compromise, something Brussels diplomats will genuinely miss when the country exits the EU?

On Brexit, the Prime Minister is smart enough to know that in a traditional negotiation she has a very weak hand indeed.  One country versus 27 who are angry, have self-preservation at the core and, crucially, control many of the timescales.  No one would realistically expect to walk in to that kind of fight and not come out more bloodied that the opponents.  However, her actions, right from her decision to delay the triggering of Article 50, despite initial howls from the EU top brass, through to the way she has managed the furore about EU nationals is not what might be thought of as the traditional “British” way of handling diplomacy.

In her dealings with Nicola Sturgeon as well, the Mrs. May has been extreme – starting off with a “No” when questioned about whether Brexit was a sufficient material change to justify a second independence referendum and sticking to that hard line this week with a brisk “now is not the time” response to the First Minister’s demands for new constitutional vote.  This didn’t seem like simply a negotiating position, this was seemed pretty definitive and with a hint of dismissiveness.

Hardly the Marquess of Queensberry rules here from the PM either then– no negotiation, no discussion, no pleasantries.  Just no, in fact.

The response of many in Scotland this week has been to dismiss this approach as a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand Scotland or just flat out doesn’t care as she is beholden to the right wing of her own party.

This may well be the case but perhaps Theresa May just doesn’t like the way the traditional table of British negotiation is set and knows the meal will end badly unless she upends the table and at least tries to improve the setting from disasterous to at least just bad.

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Time to party: Scotland’s political conferences get into full swing

 

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Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_M_Orr

As Scottish Labour gears up for its Spring Conference in Perth on Friday, we look at what to expect from the political parties as party season begins in full swing.

With Council elections on 4th May, this will be seen as a platform for the parties to inject some much-needed energy into that contest, as well as constitutional shenanigans naturally taking centre stage.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour will be gathering in Perth (24th to 26th February). With Jeremy Corbyn in attendance, the results of by-elections in the Labour heartland seats of Stoke-On-Trent Central and Copeland on Thursday will clearly have an impact on the conference mood.

It should be remembered – but don’t expect this to be said at the conference – that Scotland was the only part of the UK where Owen Smith beat Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election in September 2016.

The party, which is expected to lose heavily at the Council elections in May and dropped to third in the Scottish Parliament elections will be reinforcing its pro-Union credentials (with a dose of federalism). Attacks will be made by leader, Kezia Dugdale, on the Tories for “endangering the Union” through Brexit and the SNP for, well, doing exactly the same.

Expect the impact of Council budget cuts, as well as the state of the education and health systems to also be very much centre stage.

Scottish Conservatives

The Scottish Conservatives gather in Glasgow (3rd to 4th March) and while it is not yet confirmed whether Theresa May will be in attendance, all eyes will be on Ruth Davidson who steered her party to second place in the Scottish Parliament elections, leapfrogging Labour.

The constitutional situation will, of course, be very much to the fore, with the Tories positioning themselves as the only true “defenders of the Union”, a platform that brought them success in the Scottish Parliament elections

However, there will be some focus, with an eye to the Council elections, to Scotland being the “highest tax part of the UK”, as well as rises in Council tax and business rates.

That other constitutional matter will of course have to rear its head, that of Brexit. And while conference speeches of the past were very much aligned to the pro-Remain side, this time the line will be very much of making Brexit ‘work’, while attacking the SNP for exploiting this as an excuse to ‘break-up’ the UK.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Like Scottish Labour the Scottish Lib Dems gather in Perth and not only Willie Rennie, but former UK party leader, Nick Clegg, will also be in attendance.

The constitution will be the main topic of debate, with a call for a “Brexit deal referendum”, playing up to both pro-EU and pro-UK credentials.

Buoyed up by some recent by-elections wins the Lib Dems will be talking up their chances in the Council elections.

Scottish Greens

Like the Scottish Conservatives, the Scottish Greens gather in Glasgow. Their event is a day conference on 11th March. Leader, Patrick Harvie, will bask in his roles as ‘kingmaker’ over the issue of the budget deal with the SNP, but there will be concerns over the inclusion of the air departure tax in the budget and its environmental impact.

There will also be talk of taking forward their success from the Scottish Parliament elections into the Council elections.

SNP

The SNP head to Aberdeen for their conference (17th to 18th March). While Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson will be the main speakers, there will undoubtedly be appearances from conference favourites John Swinney, Alex Salmond and Mhairi Black.

Independence, naturally, will take centre stage, especially in the context of Brexit and an ‘almost inevitable’ second independence referendum.

Will the announcement be made to hold another independence referendum? I think not but, this will all depend on whether Article 50 has been triggered by then. There may well be a pledge to pursue a Section 30 order, to allow the vote to take place.

The announcement of some preliminary findings of Andrew Wilson’s long-awaited Growth Commission may also be on the cards.

The mood will be high in expectation of sweeping gains in the Council elections, as well as a staunch defence of the SNP’s decade in power.

Scottish Parliament election is set to be a truly taxing affair

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By Alex Orr Alex_M_Orr

 

The issue of tax is set to form the key battleground for the political parties at the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections on 5th May.

In April 2017, the Scottish Parliament will receive a package of powers. These include:

  • power to set the rates and bands of income tax on non-savings and non-dividend income
  • half the share of VAT receipts in Scotland being assigned to the Scottish government’s budget
  • and power over Air Passenger Duty and Aggregates LevySo, for the first time, significant powers will form a key plank of party manifestoes, and voters will face a spread of ideas and choices over the best balance of taxation and spending.

SNP

The SNP has said it will not adopt Mr Osborne’s announcement in the Budget to take anyone earning less than £45,000 out of the 40p tax rate. However, it does not intend to increase the 45p rate currently levied on those earning £150,000 or more a year.

The argument for not raising the top rate of income tax straight away is, according to Nicola Sturgeon, that this would see Scotland lose up to £30m a year due to income tax avoidance. She has however not ruled this out for future years and has asked the Council of Economic Advisers to see whether that risk can be mitigated.

George Osborne aims to put up the starting threshold for basic rate of tax from £11,000 to £12,500 by 2020. Nicola Sturgeon says she wants to put it up to £12,750 by the following year.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour has put on record that it does not want to see the threshold change north of the border. This is at odds with the UK party which has not objected to the Conservative government’s proposal.

Scottish Labour has also made clear that it wants to put 1p on tax rates in order to raise money “to protect public services”. It said it could give a rebate to those earning less than £20,000. In addition, it would like to see the highest rate of tax – affecting those earning more than £150,000 a year – raised from 45p to 50p.

Scottish Conservatives

A Scottish Conservative-appointed commission argued that the total tax burden should not rise any higher in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK. It backs the Chancellor’s approach to thresholds, arguing that the proposals by the other political parties would make Scotland the most highly taxed part of the UK, but tax cuts look set to remain merely “aspirational”.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Liberal Democrats want a similar penny increase as Scottish Labour, aimed at protection of education spending. It also says it objects to the 40p threshold change.

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens have set out plans to introduce a new 60p rate of income tax for Scotland’s highest earners. The party wants the new rate to apply to those earning more than £150,000 and it also plans a new 43p rate, starting at £43,000.

The Scottish Greens have also said they want to reduce the income tax paid by those earning less than £26,500 a year.

Conclusion

Napoleon’s strategy of the centre has, rightly, become military gospel

The French emperor consistently put his army in the middle of two or more larger opponents, allowing him to fight, and usually defeat each army in turn, rather than facing an overwhelming combined force.

Like Napoleon, its tax proposals leave the SNP as broadly camped across the middle ground of Scottish politics as it could ever wish to be, opting for a tax policy that risks the minimum amount of harm, by having the minimum difference with Westminster. Nicer than the Tories, more responsible than Labour.

Though it may be tempting to raise the 45% rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000, that is a choice that it currently sees as more symbolic than useful in raising revenue.

Given its lead in the polls the SNP can almost certainly live until early May’s election with the tensions and inconsistencies of talking radical and redistributive on one hand, while acting safely centrist on the other.

Labour’s pitch looks like one that is aimed at its traditional core – a narrower appeal to a chunk of the more radical left, and is designed to outflank the SNP by being more “progressive”. That’s in the hope it can be peeled away from its recent adherence to the SNP but leaves its leader, Kezia Dugdale, being exposed on all fronts as being irresponsible for wanting to raise tax.

The Scottish Conservatives, in with a sniff of a chance of coming second in this election, are standing on a centre-right platform, positioning itself as the party of the UK and appealing to a traditional middle class following through opposing any proposed tax rises by other parties.

With the parties having set out their stalls on tax and spend, the Scottish electorate will for the first time face a spread of genuine choices in front of them when they enter polling stations on the 5thMay.