A lesson from history: keep it safe and full it you want to stay in your job

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The Independent Online

Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt was the last politician to find himself in the position that Alistair Darling was in yesterday. A Victorian Liberal, with receding hair and a fine beard, Sir William too stood nervously at the Despatch Box, making his first Budget speech, conscious at every moment of the domineering leader with years of experience running the Treasury sitting behind him.

Sir William's boss was the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone, the only chancellor to have delivered more budgets than Gordon Brown. He is said to have been an accomplished speaker, but he did not try to match Gladstone for fiery oratory on this first occasion. He decided that dull would do.

It is not necessarily a bad idea for a chancellor to be dull the first time round. Any chancellor who doubts that should consider the fate of John Selwyn Lloyd, whose first performance in 1961 was much better than Harold Macmillan's first attempt five years earlier, and such a triumph that everyone agreed that Selwyn Lloyd was Macmillan's heir apparent – everyone, that is, except Macmillan, who did not want an heir apparent, and sacked Selwyn Lloyd in 1962. By contrast, John Major and Gordon Brown, two rare examples of politicians who have moved directly from No 11 Downing Street to No 10, played it dull.

Mr Brown, of course, was under no pressure in July 1997, when he first stepped forth with red dispatch box in hand. He faced a shattered opposition; the reply was to be given by William Hague, who had not held an office higher than Secretary of State for Wales. There were no decisions to be made about tax and spending, because Mr Brown and Tony Blair had promised prior to the election that for two years they would stick to the Conservative spending plans. So there was nothing much to say, except to lay down the dull but worthy fiscal rules that he would repeat like a mantra every year, and which Alistair Darling repeated yesterday, that the Government would borrow only for investment, and overall debt would be kept to a prudent level. Though Mr Brown has been accused of bending those rules, they have contributed to the economic stability that has kept Labour in power for so long.

Before Mr Brown, the House of Commons had not heard a new chancellor deliver his first Budget in a new government since Sir Geoffrey Howe stood at the Despatch Box on 12 June 1979. The most famous remark ever made about Howe was Denis Healey's comment that being attacked by him was "like being savaged by a dead sheep". Howe certainly had a dull, mumbling style of delivery, but in content, his was one of the most controversial opening budget speeches ever delivered.

Sir Geoffrey decided not to worry about short-term unpopularity. Every shopper was hit in the pocket, particularly the pensioners, and thousands of public employees were left in fear for their jobs, but the way was cleared for tax cuts further down the line that would help keep the Tories in power for 18 years. Howe announced £1.5bn a year of cuts in government spending, put VAT up from 8 per cent to 15 per cent, put up NHS prescription charges, and ended the arrangement by which pensions went up every year in line with earnings.

That level of 15 per cent lasted for nearly 12 years, until another Tory chancellor, Norman Lamont, was delivering his first budget speech, and had to raise the money to pay a massive subsidy to local councils to repair the political damage done by the poll tax, which was in the process of being scrapped. He put VAT up to 17.5 per cent, which was very nice for people living in those scattered areas where the poll tax was reduced to zero.

Howe's debut was a deliberate contrast to the first Budget by a new chancellor, Jim Callaghan, in a newly elected Labour government in 1964. Callaghan's most notable measures were to put taxes up and abolish prescription charges, which cemented his popularity in the Labour Party. For the party's and the country's sake, he might have been better advised to concentrate instead on averting the sterling crisis that soon blew up.

That crisis moved Callaghan out of the Treasury into the Home Office, to be replaced by Roy Jenkins, who made his first budget speech in 1968. He brought back the prescription charges that Callaghan had abolished, cut spending, and raised taxes, and warned of a "hard slog" ahead. That did not make Jenkins popular, and did not save the Labour government from defeat at the next election.

Denis Healey also put up taxes, and brought in a new wealth tax, and delivered a sombre warning about rising inflation, in his first budget speech in March 1974.

One problem Alistair Darling does not face this week is having to get his Budget through the House of Lords, which has not challenged a finance Bill for almost 100 years. Their last attempt was made after Lloyd George's celebrated first budget speech, the "People's Budget", delivered on 29 April 1909. Lloyd George's speech lasted nearly four hours, and was not a great oratorical triumph, but politically it achieved its purpose.

He announced that he was raising income tax from 5p in the pound to just under 6p (or 1s 2d in old money), with a supertax for high earners, and a tax on profits from the sale of land, to pay for the rising cost of social welfare. This frontal attack on inherited wealth naturally outraged a House of Lords, who threw the Budget out by 350 votes to 75, as Lloyd George anticipated. The Liberals called a general election, which they won, and after 70 parliamentary days of arguments and 554 votes, the Lords backed down.

And then there was Gladstone. By repute, his speeches were among the finest ever delivered in the House of Commons, and it is a matter of record that they were some of the longest. His first budget speech in April 1853 lasted for four hours 45 minutes, and by all accounts it was brilliant. His summing up was somewhat different from Mr Darling's closing words yesterday about "fairness and opportunity" and a "strong and sustainable future".

"Sir," Gladstone said, "I scarcely dare to look at the clock, reminding me, as it must, how long, how shamelessly I have trespassed on the time of the Committee. All I can say in apology is, that I have endeavoured to keep closely to the topics which I had before me – immensum spatiis confecimus acquor, Et jam tempus equum fumantia solvere colla..."

Who could argue with that?

Their first budgets

William Gladstone

April 1853

Gladstone's first Budget speech was about four times as long as the one Alistair Darling delivered yesterday, and probably about four times as interesting, since he was one of Parliament's greatest orators.

David Lloyd George

April 1909

This was the "People's Budget" that raised income tax and introduced surtax and a capital gains tax on land sales, to pay for welfare. Outraged at this raid on inherited wealth, the Lords foolishly tried to block it.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

June 1979

Blaming the outgoing Labour government, Howe slashed public spending, including state pensions, brought back prescription charges and almost doubled VAT. Harsh medicine, but it achieved its purpose.

John Major

March 1990

Major's only Budget speech was also the first to be televised. Recently promoted by Margaret Thatcher, and tipped as the next prime minister, he played it predictably safe but dull.

Norman Lamont

March 1991

In the first Budget since the fall of Thatcher, Lamont's main task was to raise the money to pay for the abolition of the poll tax. He went some way towards this by putting VAT up to 17.5 per cent.

Gordon Brown

July 1997

Brown knew that he would be in the job for years, so his main purpose was to lay down the new fiscal rules – prudent levels of public debt, and no borrowing except to invest.

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