Magazine article The Spectator

Either Gordon Goes, or I Do

Magazine article The Spectator

Either Gordon Goes, or I Do

Article excerpt

Oh, please, not another Gordon Brown Budget. Is this really his tenth? I don't think I can stand it. Either he goes or I do. It could be a close call, for he, too, must be tiring. On that glad confident morning when he first strode up the Treasury's staircase, applauded all the way by his sycophantic officials, can he really have supposed that, after all this time, he would still be plodding through his over-familiar routine?

Another year, another Budget, another statistical handbook with a sanctimonious title and another fat Finance Bill bringing up the rear. Another blustering speech, full of selective arithmetic. Another scatter of small change for popular causes -- research, the aged, eco-friendly fuels, youth and community facilities, or was that last year's list? Who could possibly remember? The taxman's secret weapons are camouflaged in the small print of HM Revenue and Customs' notices. No need to mention them. Meeting and mastering global challenges, as dutifully trailed in the Financial Times. All the difficult decisions put off for another year. Steady as she goes, as Sailor Jim Callaghan liked to say when he was Chancellor. In the end, of course, he capsized. At least his successor has remained afloat.

Gordon Brown could claim that this has been his achievement. Every previous Labour chancellor -- and there were seven of them -- had run into a crisis and was blown (as Sailor Jim would say) off course.

Then, on one black and breezy Wednesday, it happened to a Conservative chancellor, and the pound and his policies sank with all hands. Never mind that these had been Labour's policies, too. The new Shadow Chancellor spotted his chance. If this crisis had shown the Conservatives up as financial and economic incompetents, he could put himself forward as Labour's new model crisis-free Chancellor. He prepared for the role. Prudence would be his guiding light and leading lady. His first act at the Treasury was to put monetary policy out to contract to the Bank of England. He limited himself to his predecessor's spending plans. He made rules of his own, setting limits to his borrowings. All this was designed to establish his credit, and so, indeed, it did -- but not just to win himself an Eagle Scout's badge from the financial markets. This credit was there to be used in support of good causes, one of which, naturally enough, was to win the next election.

In his third year he turned the taps full on, and flooded the public services -- most of all the National Health Service -- with money. The election was won, and he must have expected his reward. Surely the Prime Minister would be as good as his word and move over? This promise to pay, though, was and still is a cheque with no date on it.

Now, six budgets later and with another election behind him, the Chancellor is still left to wait in expectation, and in all this time the taps have been running. He may yet be the first Chancellor to see public spending double under his stewardship.

Year after year, he has had to borrow more than he had bargained for. (This time he has come out more or less on target, and it was his estimate for growth that missed by miles. ) His trouble now is to demonstrate what all this money has bought. Much of it -- most of it -- amounts to running on the spot. The public sector has its own inflation rate, which is higher than ordinary people's, just as its productivity is lower. …

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