The infighting in the Tory Party over the body of George Osborne may not strike many this side as of great domestic importance.
It is too early to say what will happen to the Shadow Chancellor. But the process which could amount to death by a thousand cuts has already begun. His great rival (and predecessor), the self-effacing Dr Oliver Letwin, (Cambridge and Princeton and one-time Thatcher adviser), has been drafted in to — as one leader-writer put it — “identify cuts in state expenditure”. Now I know that to talk of a self-effacing politician may amount to a contradiction in terms, but I speak, shall we say, comparatively. Letwin's task is to allow the Tories to hit the headlines with their costed cuts before Chancellor Darling springs his in his pre-Budget report.
The significance of the Tories' new interest in cuts is that Osborne, like Cameron, whom he advises, until now has been firmly tethered to those Tories pledged, in office, to match Labour spending.
But the pressure to cut the cord is growing from right-wingers, like John Redwood, who argue that the Tories must revert to behaving like Tories. Whatever the outcome of the argument, any talk of cuts is bad news for these parts. Northern Ireland is very vulnerable to such a programme on several counts. The first one is the cold figures of existing expenditure. The Welsh may enjoy spending by the UK taxpayer of a full 15% above the UK average. But Northern Ireland's margin is going on for twice that.
Then, despite hard cases, we are by no means as poorly off as we used to be. Our unemployment has been rising, but the rate is still below many harder-hit areas in England. Visiting officials and MPs are not blind. They fly to Belfast on official business and find their taxi in a rush-hour queue where not one of the surrounding cars is much more than two years old; where inner-city zones, once of Victorian complexion, now have an almost-new, 1990s stamp; and where airlines find it worth their while to fly daily and directly to winter sunspots far away.
Then there is the review, hanging in the wings, of Lord Barnett's formula, notorious south of the Tweed and east of the Severn, which gives Northern Ireland its enviable subsidy. Barnett's |people at the Treasury worked it out in 1979, when he was Jim Callaghan's Chief Secretary. On account of their special needs, it promised the Scots some 10% of public spending, the Welsh five and Northern Ireland pro rata: i.e, much more than each was entitled to on a simple head count. The English now grumble that the yardstick should revert to simply measuring the need of all.
What has delayed any move is Labour's reliance on its Scottish seats: without them it might never again be in office at Westminster. At devolution the Scottish seats were reduced from 72 to 59 — but Labour still holds 39 of them. This means that cutting the Scottish block grant is an unpopular subject with a vociferous lobby on Labour's back benches, not to mention the Prime Minister, his Chancellor and other Scottish ministers.
But all this could change quickly. A general election is already in sight on the horizon. If the Tories get their act together and were to win it, sensitivity to political hides in Scotland will become, if not irrelevant, at most only one factor among a long list of others.
The Tories have been largely banished from Scottish constituencies, where they are regarded widely as the ‘English’ party.
David Cameron terms himself a passionate unionist; but the next Government will inherit a choice can of worms in the national finances. Under a Conservative Government, the Scots could begin to pay the price of their disdain of all things Tory. And if Scotland, what of Wales — and Northern Ireland?
There is a final factor of course: our experiment in power-sharing devolution. It is fair to say that none of the local parties in harness likes it.
In fact they have largely been bribed into it, with an absurd total of 108 MLAs (the old Stormont Commons had only 52 MPs), the complement of MLAs being over-blown so that the spit would always carry a richly dripping roast.
What with committee chairmanships and the urgent requirements of consultations abroad, remuneration packages venture into six figures. And after this, what if Stormont makes a mess of it? What of an Executive which never meets? Dismay in Whitehall, with a change in government, could degenerate into — expensive — disgust. The cure of the Executive's disease may well depend long term, (assuming there is to be a long term), upon devising a means of constructing a power-sharing coalition which allows an Opposition: i.e, the coalition, though sharing power, would not necessarily include all parties. Why hold elections at all if the voters cannot eject the Government from office? Whatever the answer to the conundrum, it may pay locally to get sorted.