Magazine article Public Finance

Soft Landing for Gordon?

Magazine article Public Finance

Soft Landing for Gordon?

Article excerpt

Gordon Brown also has a day job, though you could easily have forgotten this. The main media focus recently has been on Project Gordon: his preparations for taking over as prime minister. Almost all his recent public activities have been outside his Treasury brief. We have had speeches on national security, the armed forces, constitutional reform and young people, with more promised in the coming months on education, the environment and many other topics.

But Brown's future is, as he well knows, about much more than wearing a trendy pink silk tie, rather than a drab red one, putting on a Biggles-like helicopter pilot's helmet and meeting Shakira, the pop singer and Unicef ambassador. What matters, as will be apparent from the Budget on March 22, is still what Brown does at the Treasury. His record there will determine not only his reputation as the longest serving chancellor for 200 years but also, crucially, what he will be able to do when he finally takes over at Number 10.

In one sense, there is nothing new about Brown spreading his wings. He has never been content with just managing the economy. Having shed one of the chancellor's traditional responsibilities when he handed over monetary and interest rate policy to the Bank of England, he has turned the Treasury both into a major spending department in its own right, via the tax credits system, and into a social policy department. Its remit has run across the range of welfare, employment and industrial policy, with international development thrown in for good measure.

In his Pre-Budget Reports and Budget statements, Brown has often pre-empted announcements by other secretaries of state. As one remarked to me, only half jokingly: At least Gordon told me a few days before what new schemes he was announcing for my department.'

But now Brown has moved into what have traditionally been Tony Blair's areas, including national and international security. He has wanted to show that he is 'sound' on fighting terrorism and supporting the armed forces, being as hawkish on the detention of suspected terrorists as Blair, if not more so. This is to show that he has the spread, as well as the authority, to become prime minister.

Central to all these speeches and interviews has been his emphasis on the need for more reform. This is partly to counter rumblings from ultra-Blairites that he has been anti-reform, a charge that understandably infuriates him. He repeatedly emphasises that the improvement drive needs to be intensified. Hence, the current Education Bill is only a first step and there needs to be more change to introduce personalised learning, especially for teenagers.

A Brown premiership will obviously differ from that of the past nine years. But the change might be more in style than in substance. After all, Brown has been the architect of many, if not most, of the government's industrial and social policies. There might be differences, such as on the scope of the choice and diversity programme in health. But there will be more continuity than change.

The crucial political test will be about his style as prime minister: whether he can move away from his centralised approach to decision-taking and operating via an almost tribal network of loyal allies. He has worked with a close coterie of advisers and officials in the Treasury. Can he develop as prime minister?

The Brown camp is nervous about Tory leader David Cameron, and a battle between the familiar, and possibly over-familiar, and the new and the fresh. Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne have deliberately targeted Brown. They hardly mention Tony Blair any longer in their speeches. He is treated as history. Instead, they focus on Brown, whom they depict as too old, out of touch and only a very recent convert to interest in the environment and young people.

The Tories are also trying to undermine the chancellor's economic reputation by highlighting problems over the outlook for public finances, Britain's middling productivity record and the threat to our competitive position from increased taxes and regulations. …

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