THE chill winds, splashes of colour in the trees, and that strange hankering for soup you’re feeling these days can mean only one thing: it’s budget time.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently said his UK budget would be held on October 27, when the results of the 2021 Spending Review will also set out how much government departments can expect over the next three years.

Yesterday it was the turn of SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who announced her Scottish Budget for 2022/23 arrives on December 9.

Alongside it, she will release the Government’s Medium Term Financial Strategy, which looks ahead five years.

When the day arrives it, it’s likely she will, like her predecessors, boast she is delivering a “balanced budget”.

In truth, this is making a virtue out of a necessity, as the Scottish Government can do very little else.

Under the 2016 Fiscal Framework which determined its funding formula as part of greater tax and welfare powers, it has some borrowing ability, but it is strictly limited. Far too limited, says the SNP Government.

To invest in long-term projects and infrastructure, it can borrow up to £450m a year to a total of £3bn, and has so far borrowed £1.7bn of this.

While for day-to-day, or resource, spending, it can borrow up to £600m a year to a total of £1.75bn, and has now borrowed around £500m this way.

However this resource borrowing is only for specific purposes: up to £500m for in-year cash management, and £300m a year to cope with forecast errors, rising to £600m if there is a Scotland-specific shock, which Covid has triggered for two years.

But is this about to change?

The Fiscal Framework, which readers may recall involved feverish wrangling between Edinburgh and London, is due for its five-year review.

An independent expert group is to report on the mechanism for tweaking Holyrood’s annual block grant from the Treasury, and this will then feed into intergovernmental talks next year.

So far, most of the process has been opaque, with lots of squabbling over the remit of the independent group.

But we do know what SNP ministers ultimately want, because they buried it at the back of this year’s Programme for Government, and if they get it, it’s goodbye balanced budgets.

The big demand is for a “substantial increase” in borrowing powers.

First, “removal of the caps on capital borrowing… to be replaced by a prudential borrowing scheme - the same power local authorities already enjoy.”

This is a decent idea that was floated by the Smith Commission of 2014.

In practice, it means the Scottish Government borrowing what it wants to invest long-term provided no more than 5 per cent of the Scottish budget (up to £2bn of this year’s £40bn, for instance) is spent managing debt.

For comparison, inherited PPP/PFI debt already costs around £1bn a year.

The second borrowing demand is “removal of the restriction on resource borrowing to fund day-to-day costs [and] an increase in the borrowing cap for forecast errors to £600m”.

The second part of this is sensible too. There have already been forecast errors larger than £300m under the framework, and they haven’t been the government’s fault, the responsibility lying with the outside experts who do the budget estimates imperfectly.

As Holyrood takes on more social security spending, shaky sums on income and outgoings are even likelier.

Indeed, many aspects of the framework need an overhaul. All the borrowing caps were set in 2016 in cash terms, and at the very least ought to be index-linked for inflation.

The pandemic also exposed their rigidity. The system couldn’t cope with such a huge shock, and had to be bypassed with cash injections direct from the Treasury last year.

But the demand to remove “the restriction on resource borrowing to fund day-to-day costs” is another matter, and a hostage to fortune.

What it means is the SNP want the power to borrow to fund any kind of day-to-say spending, not just the few categories under the fiscal framework.

Cash to pay more to teachers, or nurses, or fight poverty, you name it. Laudable policies, you may say, but funded through debt, not taxation.

Yes, the UK does it too. But the Chancellor is now planning to phase out borrowing to fund day-to-day spending within three years to underline Tory fiscal discipline.

On the one hand, it’s obvious that the SNP would want this power. The SNP always takes a maximal approach, seeking all possible powers up to and including independence.

However, to put it mildly, the SNP also has a bit of a credibility problem. On schools, on the NHS, on ferries, on ephemeral state energy firms, on a referendum that never comes.

So asking for the power to borrow to get through each day is going to be a tough sell to voters. You can hear the opposition howls already: ‘Look at what they want to mess up next.’

When Ms Forbes goes into battle with the Chancellor on this issue, she will open herself up to a new line of attack that the ‘balanced budget’ mantra has so far staved off.

In all likelihood, the Treasury will bluntly reject her request. It doesn’t fear Scotland going broke if it borrows more from London, but it does fear a new Scottish debt adding to the UK fiscal aggregate, which could mess up Mr Sunak’s fiscal rectitude plan.

However that that won’t stop the SNP’s opponents trying to paint the party as profligate in the meantime.

It also underlines the wider problem the SNP faces - the more its record disappoints, the harder it becomes to demand new powers with credibility, and that, after all, is its mission.