Magazine article The Spectator

Economic Recovery Plan? Forget It, Gordon

Magazine article The Spectator

Economic Recovery Plan? Forget It, Gordon

Article excerpt

All this talk of Gordon Brown's 'economic recovery plan' calls to mind the unhappy day, many years ago on a junior bankers' training course, when I took part in a competitive team game which involved managing a computer model of the British economy.

We were told it was a version of the Treasury's own model. In successive rounds, each team would have the opportunity to alter tax rates, interest rates and public spending levels, the objective being to maintain strong growth, low inflation and low unemployment.

But also in each round, the game's moderator would introduce random events with economic consequences: a sudden rise in oil prices, say, or a wave of public-sector strikes, or the outbreak of a small war.

Before the game began, my teammates went into a huddle. 'You're a clever bugger, Martin, ' one of them said. 'We think you'd better be captain.' So off we went, with me calling most of the shots. Two rounds in, we were looking pretty good: prudent and stable, you might say. But five or six rounds in, what with oil prices soaring and one thing and another, we were in deep trouble. Stagflation loomed.

Public borrowing seemed to be irretrievably out of control. Our dole queue was lengthening. Attempts to correct past mistakes only made matters worse. The team began to mutter and squabble. We lost the game and for the rest of the month-long course my cleverbugger status never recovered.

I haven't made that up: it took place in 1982 at a training centre in Sussex which is now a luxury hotel, and I can still recall the burning resentment of one colleague who felt, probably correctly, that he would have done a far better job than me as captain. So I really do know how Gordon Brown feels.

In his high-stakes version of exactly the same game, there are only a couple of Pre-Budget and Budget rounds left to play before the runup to the 2010 election. Even the new rule he introduced to deal with the 10p tax uprising, that really howling cock-ups can be reversed at will between rounds regardless of cost to the public finances, offers him little comfort.

No one now thinks he can win: it's only a matter of how badly he loses, and whether he is sacked as captain before the bitter end.

Some of his former teammates have quietly started forming new teams of their own. All he can do is summon his last trusted collaborators together to devise a list of desperate measures for an early-autumn 'relaunch'. Perhaps some of these discussions took place in the Suffolk mansion to which he retreated for his summer break; all we can firmly guess is that none of them have happened in their rightful place, inside Her Majesty's Treasury. 'Is there an economic plan?' one Whitehall official moaned to the Evening Standard recently. 'If there is one, we haven't been told about it or shown it. . .

Presumably the Chancellor is involved, but even that's not absolutely clear.' It's not clear because the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, seems already to have been thoroughly stitched up by Brown's people over the leaked story of a possible stampduty holiday, which clearly did not come from him and which he was unable to confirm or deny. Many observers assume Darling is being lined up for the chop, to be replaced by David Miliband -- not because Brown wants the benefit of Miliband's untested economic skills on his team, but to hobble Miliband's leadership-bid prospects by lashing him to the mast of the stricken regime.

So who is actually drafting the 'plan'?

Standing by the whiteboard, multicoloured marker pens at the ready, must surely be Wilf Stevenson, Brown's old university pal who has just been called in to Downing Street from the Smith Institute, the Brownite think-tank criticised by the Charity Commission for its lack of political neutrality. Wilf's task today will be to make stale ideas look fresh by turning them into one of those wacky mind-map diagrams beloved of think-tankers and consultants. …

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