Magazine article Public Finance

I Can't Believe It's Not Blair

Magazine article Public Finance

I Can't Believe It's Not Blair

Article excerpt

To have two major political parties in the process of changing their leaders could easily be seen, as Lady Bracknell might have put it, as carelessness. While the Conservatives gear up for a summer of political intrigue and double-dealing (more generally known as a leadership contest), Labour is faced with the question of when and how to switch from Tony to Gordon.

The Tories are actually making a far more fundamental decision. The very direction of Conservatism for the post-Thatcher era is finally to be determined. The party could continue down its path of recent years, coupling mild social authoritarianism with an attempt to shadow Labours tax and spend policies. Alternatively, it could move to a new model, including a combination of social liberalism, lower taxation and a smaller state. Time - and a new leader - will tell.

But while Tory leadership contenders David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Liam Fox, David Cameron, Alan Duncan and Uncle Tom Cobleigh fight themselves to a standstill, it is widely accepted that by 2008 at the latest - there will be an orderly transfer of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown.

The orderliness of the change could, of course, be challenged if 'awkward squad' Labour MPs suspect a Brown government would look too much like the decade-long Blair one.

All of which begs the important question of how a 'Gordon regime would differ from a 'Tony' one. The recent general election and Queen's Speech provide starting points for the detail of Labour's third term. How much of what is currently proposed would survive a change in leadership?

This question goes to the heart of whether or not Brown has sat in Number 11 Downing Street secretly wanting to take the government in a different direction from Blair's. Experts ranging from biographers to style gurus have attempted to work out the difference between the two. None has provided a definitive answer. When the chancellor looks in the mirror, does he see Blair reflected or not? One day soon, the whole of Britain will find out.

Public Finance readers can absorb the fluctuating debate concerning the size, content and management of public services from the comfort of their desks. Every boost in spending, efficiency initiative, new budget and set of cuts can be seen as it flashes past, like a cornet. No government in modern times - probably ever - has treated us to quite so many bright ideas, initiatives, plans, strategies and funding streams. Councils, hospitals, schools, constabularies, fire brigades, social landlords, benefits offices and social services departments have been deluged in new policy.

The important thing about all this activity is that it would never have happened without the chancellors approval. Indeed, Brown's unchallenged intellectual brilliance, coupled with his desire to use the welfare state more constructively, has provided a major element of the intervention and modernisation that have characterised the past eight or so years. In many ways, Britain has been dominated by detailed Brownite social engineering in the years since 1997. Blair, by all accounts, is a broad strategy man.

Indeed, it is worth considering some of the essential domestic policy areas where the chancellor has obviously been interested in modernisation. In his first Budget report, published in July 1997, he committed himself to 'modernise the welfare state' by ensuring that people had 'the right financial incentives to take up work... and encourage a culture in which rights go hand-in-hand with responsibilities'. The same 1997 Budget included details about the need to expand public-private partnerships and the use of the Private Finance Initiative. All very Blairite.

Subsequently, the Treasury's Budget reports and related documents published each year have revealed new interests. Regional productivity, social inclusion and skills have been among the topics pursued. In April 2003, a document entitled Public services: meeting the productivity challenge provided rich insights into the chancellors view of the public services. …

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