Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

It's the Last-Joust Budget before the Battle Begins; Neither of the Main Parties Can Confidently Lay Claim to the Prize Terrain of the Election - the Economy

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

It's the Last-Joust Budget before the Battle Begins; Neither of the Main Parties Can Confidently Lay Claim to the Prize Terrain of the Election - the Economy

Article excerpt

Byline: Anne McElvoy

THE sense of fin de siecle hung heavy around the palace of Westminster as Alistair Darling rose to give what might well be the final Budget of the Labour years. I spoke to one civil servant who has worked on Budgets since Mr Brown still had his glossy black locks back in 1997. "I never thought it would go on this long," he said. Neither, in their heart of hearts, did Labour or the Tories.

These we have loved (or not): Gordon Brown's early hubris -- "no return to boom and bust" -- his daring raids on private sector pensions, and other greatest hits, the Budgets for the Many, not the Few, Prudence, the pratfalls of minuscule pension rises and the 10p tax fiasco which hit the working poor.

The over-confidence of Mr Brown's Budgets: "Oh yes, Mr Speaker ..." has been succeeded by the soporific understatement of Alistair Darling. If only we could bore our way out of recession, we'd be through all the dips by now and out on a Bond Street spending spree.

Mr Darling has cannily profited by selling himself short only to exceed expectations. He can duly pride himself that he rises today as a Chancellor scraping the bottom of the spending barrel without accruing personal animosity for what has gone wrong. A considerable political feat. He is the true Macavity of New Labour: Mr Brown keeps getting caught out. With the exception of his Northern Rock wobble, Alistair rarely is.

Indeed, the Conservatives are rattled.

"There's a lot of fear around this place," says a former leader. Of course, debt remains scarily high -- but the Government is profiting from the perceived uncertainty of the Tories about their own economic nostrums.

It is little short of miraculous that a long-serving Government that led Britain into a serious and damaging recession and hung around with the toxic baubles of sleazy MPs and union barons brokering strike deals should be closing the gap on the Conservatives.

And according to today's Ipsos Mori poll, it's winning the argument on the planned rate of public spending reduction too -- which can only reflect on the Tories' weakness in the first months of the year, since no one in Labour has the faintest idea of how the Government's aim to half the deficit in four years will be achieved. If it is.

Today is not really a Budget but the warm-up bout for the election race ahead. It gives Labour the chance to solidify its newfound (if unearned) role as the reassuring party, to whom the voters can entrust a recovery. Mr Darling will point to the "crossroads" at which UK plc finds itself -- and advise against taking the excitable risks of the party opposite.

For the Conservatives it is essential that they use their own moment in the economic spotlight to sound as if they have finally decided what their message is -- and intend to stick to it. …

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