Election '97: Forsyth warns Scots of leap into the abyss Forsyth warns Scotstwa of pounds 2.5 say home warn of 'leap into abyss'

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The Independent Online
Sounding like a man desperate at the prospect of losing both his Cabinet post and his parliamentary seat, Michael Forsyth yesterday warned Scots that home rule could rob their public services of up to pounds 2.5bn.

Scotland stood on "the edge of a precipice", the Secretary of State for Scotland declared in the most apocalyptic contribution by any party on the final day of campaigning north of the border. A vote for anyone other than the Conservatives would be a "leap into the abyss". Living standards would fall, and health, housing and education services would suffer, he said.

In an apparent breach of convention, Mr Forsyth cited advice from officials within the Scottish Office who, he claimed, had told him the funding formula proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a devolved administration would cut pounds 1bn to pounds 1.5bn from Scotland's pounds 14bn public expenditure grant. If the Treasury got its way, the cut could be pounds 2.5bn, he claimed.

Normally civil servants are not dragged into the election battle. Mr Forsyth said he had been "reluctant" to reveal their advice, but as the Opposition had had the opportunity of discussions with officials he would be "amazed" if they had not raised the funding issue. "If they have not addressed it, they are not fit to be in government."

Mr Forsyth's deployment of civil servants' advice on the last day of the campaign is a reflection of his own desperate circumstances. Not only does the Tory party in Scotland face a hammering today, but his own seat of Stirling is one of the most vulnerable. Labour needs a swing of just 0.3 per cent to take it.

According to the Constitutional Convention - the blue-print agreed by Labour and the Lib Dems for home rule - the current formula for calculating Scotland's share of UK spending would continue. However, it also advocates further moves towards equalisation across the UK, with resources distributed "on the basis of relative need".

According to Mr Forsyth, spending on health and local government is one- third more per head in Scotland than in England. No objective needs assessment had been carried out since 1979 and in the meantime Scotland had become one of the most prosperous places in the UK, he added.

George Robertson, the shadow Scottish Secretary, dismissed Mr Forsyth's claims as last-gasp scaremongering. "It bears no relation to any advice I have received from the Scottish Office on this point. A Labour chancellor will guarantee Scotland its fair share of Britain's resources side-by- side with home rule."

The Scottish National Party drove home its independence message at a gathering of about 80 supporters beneath the empty parliament building on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Alex Salmond, the party leader, predicted the SNP would win "a barrow load of seats" today. In reality, seven or eight, compared to four MPs when the election was called, would be counted a success. Any losses and Mr Salmond's job will be at risk.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were clinging to the hope that they will become the second party in Scotland. Sir David Steel said a substantial group of Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament could provide a "more radical edge" to a Blair government.

A large number of voters felt the Tories and Labour were offering "something like a choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola", Sir David said.