Austerity budget may be Swinney's easiest yet

The Scottish Greens probably won't help Mr Swinney ... after last time
The Scottish Greens probably won't help Mr Swinney ... after last time
It is somewhat ironic that John Swinney, the Finance Secretary, will find it easier to get his budget through the Scottish Parliament this year, when the money is tight, than he has done in previous years.

This is Mr Swinney’s third budget. The first two proved to be torturous and difficult affairs. His main courting partner was Annabel Goldie, leader of the Scottish Conservatives but she demanded a lot.

In return for the support of the Tory MSP group, Ms Goldie demanded – and was given – 500 extra police officers, accelerated business-rate relief for small businesses, more drug rehabilitation places and more adventure education courses for teenagers.

All of these concessions came at a price and Mr Swinney had to find the money in the budget to secure Tory support.

This year is very different. Everybody in the parliament knows that Mr Swinney has little scope for concessions. He just doesn’t have the money. As a result, the Tories are being very reasonable. They have asked for concessions but, significantly, not concessions that will cost money.

This year they want transparency. They want all public sector salaries over £150,000 to be published and they want the financial details of every Scottish Government contract published too.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for Mr Swinney to agree to these demands. He won’t like it and his officials (particularly the higher paid ones) won’t like it either but it is easier for him to agree to something like that than find money in an already stretched budget.

With the Tories on board, Mr Swinney just needs one more partner to get his budget through. At the moment, this looks like being the Liberal Democrats. They were holding out for a cap on the salaries of all high-paid public sector officials. There are problems with this approach, though, problems the Liberal Democrats now recognise, the most salient being that a cap of the sort they suggest might be challengeable in court.

As a result, the Liberal Democrats may also take the consensual route, backing the budget in return for an examination of a cap on the top public sector salaries.

But what of Labour? This is the one party which is not playing the austerity budget game. Labour have demanded the reinstatement of the expensive Glasgow Airport Rail Link in return for their support.

Not only is the SNP government not going to agree to this but Labour haven’t even bothered to identify where the money would come from to pay for it. Anyone who suggests a budget amendment has to say what they would cut to fund it. Labour haven’t done this which shows how unrealistic their demand is and how unlikely it is even to get considered by ministers.

The first reading of the budget takes place today and, after that debate, the ground should be fairly clear for Mr Swinney to get it through by the middle of next month. All he needs to do is win the Tories round, which shouldn’t take too long, appease the Liberal Democrats and ignore Labour.

Oh, there is always the Greens but given that they were shafted so royally by Mr Swinney last year, it is probably in both their interests if the Finance Secretary gives them a wide berth this year.

Everyone knows that this budget is the toughest in years and no-one wants to be the one to cause it to fall. That is the real reason why there is so much good sense and much less brinkmanship this year.

There is also the small matter of an election. If the budget was to fall, Alex Salmond could force an election on the country and with all the parties gearing up for a General Election in May, the prospect of a Scottish election a month or so before that is the last thing anybody wants.

At last Mr Swinney can sleep easily as the budget deadline approaches. At least for this year …