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Brown’s Tenth Budget

25/3/06

“An analogue Chancellor for a digital age”. It was an elegant put-down from David Cameron in last week’s Budget response. Gordon Brown has bored for Britain on information technology in many Budgets past, and this was a web-wise way of suggesting that the Chancellor is yesterday’s man.

Gordon Brown knows just how effective those asides can be. He used to get comedy scriptwriters to craft them for him back in the days when he used to savage the Tory Chancellors Ken Clarke and Norman Lamont. Now he’s on the receiving end.

Cameron, in his first big Dispatch Box outing against Brown also called him a “fossil fuel Chancellor”, which wasn’t quite so good. Gordon Brown is no dinosaur. He has evolved, learned to adapt to the Dave age, looks less Neanderthal. It was a much more user-friendly Brown who delivered this year’s Budget . Baby blue tie, measured delivery, self-deprecating jokes about what happens to Chancellors who stay too long. He was enjoying himself which is half the battle.

Brown’s annual Budget interview on the Today programme was an easier on the ear too. The Chancellor has learned to slow down, modulate his voice, sound as if he is actually listening to the questions. He used to drone on in a relentless, exasperating monotone. Either Brown has been having voice coaching, or his wife Sarah, a public relations professional, has finally taken him in hand. Possibly both.

The Budget speech itself was inconsequential from an economic point of view, but it was fascinating in what it told us about the next general election, which will be an extended version of Wednesday’s Budget confrontation. With few real issues dividing the parties, the election will more than ever be a clash of personalities – between the old moderniser, Brown, and the new moderniser, Cameron.

Here was Brown exploiting his adversary’s class background but in a subtle, post-modern manner. He didn’t rant at Cameron for going to Eton; instead he proposed that the government should spend as much on every state school pupil as is spent on every private pupil. Clever. Underscores the privileged background of the leader of the opposition, while daring Cameron to disown the idea. Or do the Tories prefer that educational inequality should endure?

And do they want to remain the party of the gas guzzler? Of smoke stack industries unregulated by the climate change levy? A Tory party that lets young lives be ruined by spending cuts?

Brown shamelessly stole Cameron’s clothes on volunteering, competitive sport and support for family life, while promising to privatise anything left in the public sector that can be flogged off. Really, it is amazing that this increasingly neo-conservative Chancellor is still regarded as a figure of the Left.

So, Brown can raise his game too. On this showing, these men are not only evenly matched, they bring out the best in each other. The Gordon and David show will run and run – if it’s allowed to run. For the problem for both men is that they are in a state of suspended animation until the Prime Minister creates a vacancy at Number Ten.

Tony Blair had a dreadful press last week. Columnists and cartoonists portrayed him as a has-been, overstaying his welcome, a figure from the past, a ruin. The loans scandal has been of epic proportions – and it is all the Prime Minister’s fault. For once, the buck really does stop somewhere.

The Tories have backed off because they are even more dependent than New Labour on loans from anonymous and probably foreign donors, but that doesn’t mean the loans for peerages affair is unimportant. This has been a defining moment for the PM. Tony Blair will forever be regarded as the ultimate political hypocrite, who promised to be whiter than white and ended prostituting the House of Lords.

Doesn’t matter that it can’t be proven that peerages have been for sale – everyone thinks they have been. One of the millionaire donors, Rod Aldrige of Capita has done the decent thing and resigned, but the author of the loans scandal remains doggedly in office. It doesn’t get much worse.

But while the nation regards Tony Blair as bang to rights, the Prime Minister isn’t going quietly, in fact he isn’t showing any obvious signs of going at all. Blair’s resilience is legendary; he seems to be able to absorb any amount of punishment, and still bounce back.

Which leaves the three most powerful figures in British politics facing each other in an edgy stand-off. It’s the climax to “A Fistful of Dollars” when the man with no name faces the bounty hunter and the thief in the graveyard. No one knows who is going to shoot first and you can see the frantic calculation in their eyes, as they realise that two of them are going to end in holes in the ground.

The received wisdom is that Tony Blair will blink first, but there is no guarantee of that. No one knows what really goes on behind the Prime Minister’s fixed smile – probably not even Tony Blair. What’s he in it for? What’s his game?

Well, possibly revenge. In the PM’s eyes, everything was going fine until a jumped up trades unionist, Jack Dromey, the party treasurer, fingered him as a crook. The NEC has now seized responsibility for party funding; Labour MPs are calling openly for him to resign. Well, if that’s their attitude, Tony Blair may think, then how can they expect me to do them any favours? I’ll do what’s right for me.

Forget the polls – as of this week the next general election is on a knife edge. If Labour plunges into internecine war, if Tony Blair refuses to budge, if the war continues to go wrong, then Gordon Brown could face defeat at the polls. He faces a far tougher challenger than any Tory leader Tony Blair ever faced. And what’s worst of all is that the party he leads is effectively bankrupt and he won’t be able to rely on millionaire donors to finance his first general election campaign as leader of the Labour Party

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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