John McLellan: Sturgeon says we are strapped for cash but yet makes so many half-promises

Tuesday was a tale of two powerful politicians, both senior figures for over a decade; one from whom we knew what to expect, and the other we’re about to find out.

For all that Liz Truss has been a minster of ascending importance since 2012, her changing jobs and views make her one of the most difficult incoming Prime Ministers to predict.

But judging by yesterday’s assured performance at Prime Minister’s Questions she’ll be no pushover. Her credentials as a low-tax, small-state free marketeer were on show, but today is expected to announce emergency spending which will increase government borrowing by well over £100bn.

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Circumstances have unquestionably forced her hand, but the anticipated energy price freeze looks unavoidable given the impact of crippling gas price rises on millions of people and thousands of employers. The big question is who pays, and the burden should not be borne entirely by tax-payers or bill-payers, none of whose fault this is.

The energy companies have been good at asking the government to spend public money to cover their customers, bills without volunteering a commitment of their own, and if we are all in it together windfall taxes should not be needed for them to do their bit.

As for all being in it together, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has dedicated her political life to not being in the United Kingdom and her Programme for Government didn’t disappoint.

No state-reducing free-marketer she, and her demand for more windfall taxes and the removal of investment allowances would disincentivise power supply expansion when it’s needed most, threatening energy firms with punishment, not partnership.

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Her biggest concern about tax cuts from Westminster was not the impact on UK debt, but the impact on her budget, despite Scottish public spending now £2,000 per head above the UK average.

Predictably, she presented a sheaf of interventions with an eye firmly on the popular vote built around previously announced increases in social security payments, but also included measures which could make things worse, not better, like a ban on domestic rent increases and evictions which threatens to crash the housing rental market, while a nationalised train company struggling to meet wage demands will also have its only source of income frozen.

As Edinburgh’s hospitality sector battles with soaring costs it now faces the implementation of a tourism tax, and as workers of all types wrestle with the soaring bills there is no halt to the workplace parking tax.

The constant gripe that there isn’t enough money has become wallpaper music, but for someone so apparently strapped for cash, it was remarkable just how many bills, projects, initiatives and half-promises she was able to make.

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But as always, it’s not words but delivery which matter most, and like the pledges to “invest in vital improvements to ferry services”, to “drive forward our national mission to reduce drug deaths” and “to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026,” much of it was mitigation for failures going back 15 years.

Underpinning it all was an independence referendum her own law officers don’t believe she can hold, all the while claiming to “foster a spirit of solidarity to help each other through the challenges ahead”.

Solidarity, that is, with those who think constitutional upheaval in the next year is just what we need.

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