Magazine article The Spectator

Brown Has Played into the Hands of the Tory Bullingdon Boys He Loathes

Magazine article The Spectator

Brown Has Played into the Hands of the Tory Bullingdon Boys He Loathes

Article excerpt

Conservative backbenchers were in good voice on Monday, and by prearrangement. The whips had sent around the message that there was to be raucous heckling as Alistair Darling read out what used to be called the Autumn Statement.

Duly, there were roars of indignation at the Chancellor's claims that Britain was bestprepared for a downturn, howls of protest as he claimed to have reduced debt. But then this yielded to unexpected quiet as it slowly became clear that Mr Darling's giveaways included something the Tories would never have dared dream of: the surrender of everything New Labour once stood for.

David Cameron had been at George Osborne's house the day before, nervously preparing for the surprise tax cut which they suspected was in store. The pre-briefed VAT cut to 15 per cent, they believed, was a softener. They also supposed, wrongly, that Mr Darling would honour the basic New Labour principle of spelling out how he would repay the borrowing. In the event, there was not even an attempt at a payback plan. The Chancellor said he would double the national debt to £1 trillion -- and to hell with the consequences. These were the fiscal rules of the credit card thief.

Mr Darling also declared that he would soak the rich -- not because it would save the budget, but because they deserved it.

They 'have seen their incomes almost double', he noted caustically, so it was time to pay up. Here was an irrevocable philosophical break with the past. Tony Blair used to argue that the richest 1 per cent paid almost a quarter of income tax collected -- so his attitude was to say 'thank you' and try to attract more such people to Britain. Now, Gordon Brown is coming at these Golden Geese with Denis Healey's old carving knife.

As a joint architect of New Labour, Brown could argue that -- like Frankenstein -- he has the right to kill his creation. The truth is that it had already gone bankrupt. The footnotes of the Pre-Budget Report make clear that the scale of government had been fixed on the basis of a false assessment of economic reality. Boom had been mistaken for stability. Sticking to New Labour's borrowing rules would have meant suicidal tax rises, or genuine public spending cuts -- as opposed to the fake cuts he has spent his career pretending the Tories would implement. So option three was to borrow, hugely, and for the foreseeable future.

Mr Osborne noticed this instantly when launching into the angriest and, arguably, finest speech of his parliamentary career to date. His response was symbolic in its cussedness: he had prepared himself for battle not just against Mr Darling but his Tory critics. He knew he was on trial and answered the lot of them with an impassioned j'accuse against the Chancellor. It was the moment that the tables turned, and the time finally came for a Conservative offensive.

To see just how far the game has changed, consider the response last week when Mr Cameron declared Labour's 2010/11 spending levels unaffordable. Then, he was denounced as a Thatcherite ideologue by Labour and as 'mad' by some economic commentators. Yet on Monday, Mr Darling did precisely the same, cutting his own projected spending for the next two years by some £35 billion. By coincidence, this is precisely the sum he accused Michael Howard of planning to cut three years ago. Then, Mr Darling declared such a saving 'could only be found from cutting deep into front-line public services, including schools, hospitals and the police'. Now he calls it 'efficiency'.

Spending cuts, made to save taxpayer's money, are suddenly back on the approved list of economic tools. Ditto tax cuts. As the terms of debate change, so Mr Cameron's and Mr Osborne's opportunities multiply.

And as Mr Brown takes the public finances on a descent towards hell, then the Tory slogan -- 'responsibility' -- suddenly sounds less nebulous. The Conservatives will make debt their central attack line, with debt clocks clicking away at £2,000 a second to make the case graphically and comprehensibly. …

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