Magazine article The Spectator

Great Headline, Gordon, but No Way to Make Policy

Magazine article The Spectator

Great Headline, Gordon, but No Way to Make Policy

Article excerpt

Denis Healey was the last Labour chancellor to find that two Budgets a year weren't enough. He was forced into cobbling policy together every four months or so because some of his proposals barely outlasted the speech that produced them. Now Gordon Brown has decided that he needs three Budgets too. It's only a month or so until his next scheduled one, the coyly named Pre-Budget report, but he couldn't wait. It would be hard to find a more brazen case of political grandstanding than his announcement last week of tax breaks for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The British army is a small island of efficiency in the vast ocean of state incompetence, and it has been apparent for weeks that it is fighting a real war in Afghanistan.

The soldiers, said John Reid when they went in, could well leave in three years' time without ever firing a weapon in anger.

He was going through the revolving door marked MoD at the time. While there may be another Browne there now, there's no doubt about who's calling the shots. Such is Gordon Brown's hubris that he considers he can rewrite the tax code any time he likes, with neither notice nor thought.

Given the way he has turned the Treasury's publications into another arm of the government's propaganda machine, perhaps we should not be surprised.

Tax breaks for our boys makes a great headline. Never mind the details about precisely who will qualify for this special tax-free bonus, the definition of time spent, and how the bung meshes with the crazy world of state benefits. Someone in the bowels of HM Revenue & Customs will cobble something together.

So what's next? Tax breaks for poor, overworked hospital Angels? Yup, a terrific photo opportunity, with a pretty one (of each colour, of course) on each arm. Our bobbies on the beat? The hard-pressed traffic wardens? Oh well, perhaps not -- but this is a dangerous precedent. Just think how much he could appear to save by exempting public servants from income tax on their bonuses. They'd all happily take a pay cut, and suddenly look hugely underpaid compared with those working in the wealth-creating part of the economy.

Whatever Brown may think, it's impossible to run a £552 billion business -- the state is now spending about a million pounds a minute, every minute of the year -- like this. Or rather, it's impossible to run it with any semblance of efficiency, which is what chancellors are supposed to try to do. In fact, as is becoming increasingly clear as the Brown years fall into history, he's done no such thing. …

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