Brown makes hay despite reckless forecasting

The Week In Parliament
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The Independent Online
IN SPITE of an extraordinary unjustified outburst against The Independent from Stephen Byers, Chief Secretary, during Treasury questions, this column nevertheless concedes that the week in Parliament belonged to Gordon Brown.

The Chancellor appeared at the despatch box every day and progressively saw off charges of over-optimistic economic forecasting. Whether his number crunching adds up remains a matter of speculation but he was able to face question time with the reduction in interest rates providing a welcome tonic for nervous backbenchers.

All chancellors are glorified weather forecasters but the general hunch, in Parliament if not in the City, seemed to be that he was not facing total economic meltdown or Armageddon. Nicholas Soames (Con, Sussex Mid) speculated that the son of the manse had now become a reckless gambler, but the gloomy response to the pre-Budget statement may yet be confounded by Mr Brown's greatest allies so far: luck and the paucity of the Conservative response.

The initial charge of recklessness from the Tory Treasury spokesman, Francis Maude, early in the week did make an impression, aided by an improvement in his previously awkward Commons performances, but he fumbled again in response to the interest-rate cut. I fear he is returning to the poor form he showed when he took over this brief. Mr Brown took full advantage of the debate on the economy, initiated by the Tories, to relive his past debating triumphs when in opposition. The daily exchanges between the Chancellor and his shadow revealed the Opposition's inability to decide whether or not they support Bank of England control of monetary policy. Until the Tories resolve this issue, their legitimate concerns about the Treasury's policies will continue to go unanswered as they did this week.

All this and the interest-rate reduction left Mr Maude floundering and the Chancellor making hay with (in Mr Maude's words) "cheap debating points".

But Mr Brown won the points.

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AS WE all know, the fallout from the Ron Davies affair managed to engulf the BBC, another cabinet minister, the Tory party and the reputation of the Downing Street spin machine.

The central character, the former secretary of state for Wales, made his personal statement, which I would not have advised, and finally escaped to rebuild his life. But the corridors continued to buzz with salacious gossip. The consensus was that the BBC was crass in singling out one minister for apparently special treatment. Tories felt this was more cronyism while Labour MPs felt the infamous memo had done no one in the Government any favours - least of all Peter Mandelson whom it was designed to protect. Finally, it was claimed that Alastair Campbell had been economical with the extent of Tony Blair's knowledge of the events on Clapham Common. But Mr Campbell should not be blamed: the only point of a spin doctor is, after all, to cover up for his boss.

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LORD SAINSBURY of supermarket fame serves Labour politics as a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. Now Labour politics is served at the Stevenage branch of Sainsbury's. Barbara Follett, the new local MP and makeover adviser in the Kinnock era, has issued leaflets designed to catch those visiting the store. "Done your shopping? Now drop in for a chat with Barbara Follett."

Whether this is an arrangement which will be offered to all Labour MPs is unclear. What about those branches located in Tory-held constituencies? Perhaps the Tory party chairman should make a fuss, copying any correspondence to Sir Tim Sainsbury, who retired last year as a Tory MP.

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THE GOVERNMENT'S proposal for closed party lists for the European elections next year were defeated yet again by the Lords. If the Lords' decision is reversed again in the Commons, the Lords will not back down and the Bill will be lost because we are so near to the end of the session.

The Bill began its passage in the Lords in November 1997. It would be possible to rush another Bill through the new session which begins on 24 November and apply the Parliament Act so that the Bill is forced on to the statue book in time for next June's elections. There is just one little problem, however, for the Government. The Parliament Act, which overrules the Lords' veto, does not apply to Bills first introduced, as this was, in the Lords. So the Government is either faced with European elections on the current system or it will have to back down. I predict a volte-face by the Government within the next two weeks.

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THE GOVERNMENT continues to treat Parliament with contempt by refusing to announce statements in the Commons, answer questions or reply to MPs' letters on behalf of constituents.

This week John Maples, the Tory defence spokesman, was reduced in exasperation to asking further questions such as "when he intends to reply to the question tabled on 7 October?" Most of the answers he has received are composed of the single-word reply "shortly". Sir Brian Mawhinney (remember him?) has taken to asking the Chancellor "when he can expect a reply to his [Mawhinney's] letter of 16 September... on behalf of his constituents Mr and Mrs Hibbert?" It had the desired effect and a reply was sent on 26 October.

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THERE HAS been much talk recently of Tony Blair's Zen-like manner in arriving at conclusions after long public debate on the great issues. He reinforced this impression by dodging the issues posed at question time on electoral reform and the single currency. Forget Zen, though - he sounded to me more like the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin who said "Ah well! I am their leader, I really had to follow them!"

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THE LABOUR Whips are in a state because they keep tripping over a new statue of Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister of the Twenties and Thirties, which has been placed outside their office.

But it could have been worse. On the other side of the members' lobby, by the Conservative whips' office, stands a new statue of arch-Labour traitor, Ramsay MacDonald.

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