David Cameron moves centre stage in devolution debate

The tectonic plates could be moving on Scottish Home Rule, far further than David Trimble seems to realise. Rather than taking his advice ( which suggests he might not be as close to David Cameron as some people think), the main tartan Sunday heavies report that the Conservative leader is moving towards a deal with Alex Salmond and trump Labour, said to be divided over more powers for Holyrood, while reducing what could be a growing threat to the Union. Cameron tells Scotland on Sunday : I’ll fix devolution” and forge a far closer relationship between the UK and Scottish governments.
Cameron said it was “amazing” that Salmond and Brown had not met in almost a year. “If the First Minister had something close to a workable relationship with the Prime Minister throughout this economic crisis, we would have had fewer arguments and more action.” He adds that the Tories will “back the constitutional settlement” and says that there is “room for improvement” in the current set-up. Last week, the Scottish Tories gave cautious backing to calls for Holyrood to be given powers to borrow.

More specifically, the Sunday Herald story says following the passage of the Scottish budget the Tories would “negotiate” with the £400 million council tax benefit Scotland stands to lose if the SNP try to scrap council tax and replace it with a local income tax. These are opening gambits in a new political game with many moves to come. But for now it’s your move, Gordon Brown.

Meanwhile if not yet seen as a paradigm shift, the latest polls are looking dicey for the pro-Union side under recession pressure. “ Scotland on a knife-edge POLL EXCLUSIVE: 38% support independence 40% oppose it.” They’re starting to call this the Quebec scenario”, whereby Scotland would go to the brink of separation but never quite tip over, like Quebec which last voted to stay within Canada by the whisker of 0.25% of the referendum poll.
Quotes from “Scotland on Sunday’s Cameron story
If we win the next election at Westminster, we would govern with a maturity and a respect for the Scottish people. He adds: “If we are going to make devolution work effectively we need more co-operation at all levels, not just the very highest. That means the Secretary of State for Scotland having monthly meetings with the First Minister. That means Cabinet ministers in Westminster talking to their counterparts in Holyrood. That also means officials in Whitehall talking to officials in St Andrews House (the Scottish Government’s HQ]. And instead of completely refusing to appear before Scottish Parliament committees as Labour’s ministers do, our ministers would be open to reasonable requests.”

Not to be outdone, the Sunday Herald reports that Conservatives ‘would negotiate’ with SNP over £400m council tax benefit

Quotes
AN INCOMING Tory government at Westminster would negotiate with first minister Alex Salmond on the £400 million of council tax benefit the SNP administration needs to implement its local income tax policy. David Mundell, the shadow Scotland secretary, said the Conservatives would have an “open dialogue” with Salmond on the disputed millions, unlike the Labour government which is threatening to withhold the cash if the SNP abolishes the council tax.He said Tory leader David Cameron would not seek to “veto” the local income tax plan by getting bogged down on such “confrontational” issues.

The SNP government wants to replace the successor to the poll tax with an income-based alternative, set at three pence in the pound. But despite local government finance being devolved to Holyrood, the policy hinges on £400m of council tax benefit remaining in Scotland if the SNP policy is implemented.

James Purnell, Labour’s work and pensions secretary, has said Scotland will lose the cash if Salmond goes ahead with the scheme.”If there is no council tax, there is no council tax benefit,” he said. Losing the benefit money would mean the SNP having to levy the local income tax at six pence, effectively killing the policy.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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