and STEPHEN GOODWIN
Tony Blair last night vigorously defended Gordon Brown against his Labour critics with a ringing declaration to the Shadow Cabinet that he was "101 per cent" behind his shadow Chancellor and the strategy he had unveiled on the eve of Tuesday's Budget.
Mr Blair moved decisively to quell rumblings within senior party ranks against Mr Brown since a row within the Shadow Cabinet last week over Mr Brown's plans to dock 40 per cent of state benefit from young people refusing a job or training place under Labour's planned crash programme to reduce unemployment.
Details of the conflict - in which Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, reportedly questioned Mr Brown's plans - were leaked in what some senior party figures see as a deliberate attempt to undermine Mr Brown's position.
Mr Blair went out of his way at last night's Shadow Cabinet meeting to congratulate Mr Brown's "brilliant" and "extremely imaginative" pre-Budget commitment to a long-term target of reducing the starting rate of income tax to 10p in the pound. The Labour leader said that the Tories were clearly worried about the Opposition's positioning in advance of the Budget and, warning shadow ministers that he would not tolerate efforts to undermine Mr Brown, he added: "People had better understand that."
Mr Blair's move came as Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, reaffirmed the Government's long-term target of a standard income tax rate of 20p in the pound. A series of senior Shadow Cabinet members, including Mr Cook, are to make a series of speeches over the next few days backing Mr Brown by taking up the themes of his pre-Budget statements of policy. Mr Blair yesterday referred to support for Mr Brown at yesterday's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Michael Connarty, the left-wing MP for Falkirk East,praised Mr Blair's leadership and called on MPs to "suppress their egos".
He was supported by Alan Simpson, secretary of the left-wing Campaign Group. Mr Brown's plans for the young unemployed were also backed by Roger Berry, usually a critic of his economic policy.
Mr Clarke dismissed Mr Brown's 10p in the pound tax rate as a "gimmick" and noted that he had not referred to it in opening the final day of debate on the Queen's Speech. "Apparently the policy that nearly emerged in that weekend of error is already withdrawn."
The Chancellor said his objectives remained to get government borrowing down to zero, public spending below 40 per cent of gross domestic product, inflation below 2.5 per cent and a 20p basic rate of tax.
Bound by pre-Budget purdah to avoid detailed promises, he insisted Britain was enjoying the best and strongest economic recovery in Western Europe. Policies would be dedicated to making it the "enterprise centre of Europe, an economy that can earn the wealth in which all the people can share". Mr Brown said the Budget would not get the Government out of difficulty. Even if Mr Clarke brought down tax by up to 4p in the pound, he would still need to find pounds 6bn to pounds 10bn to restore the equivalent of 7p in the pound taken in new taxes since the 1992 election.Reuse content