Budget 1999: The Sketch - Washing away the Opposition with a little Tax-and- Go

THE CHANCELLOR prides himself on his far-sighted prudence when it comes to the national finances. When it comes to reading matter, though, he needs things a little nearer if they are to be seen clearly. As he readied himself to give his Budget speech yesterday he heaved two thick green-bound volumes on to the dispatch box.

For a moment it looked terrifyingly as if his speech might run into next week, but then he laid a slimmer sheaf of papers on top. The books were merely a plinth, it turned out, not the text itself. Could he elevate the spirits of Labour MPs as easily, though?

The year alone allowed Mr Brown a large leeway to turn up the epic high style: he later promised that there would be "no tax rise on alcohol this side of the millennium", which sounds like an aeon of intoxication but actually means only 10 months, and he had begun his speech on an equally grandiose note. With "the last Budget of the twentieth century", he said, he would leave behind the sterile old conflict between governments of the left and right.

Just as some shampoo manufacturers promise you cleansing power and conditioner in one bottle, the Chancellor was proposing an all-in-one deal. One can almost imagine the next party political broadcast. What? Take two parties into the next century when one will do? Not me. I use New Labour's Tax- and-Go.

And he felt confident enough about what he had to offer to Labour backbenchers to begin with wealth creation rather than social fairness. First of all he announced a variety of measures designed to encourage small business and discourage those Tories who had thought that he might be vulnerable on this issue. Indeed Mr Brown was positively teasing in his performance - playing with expectations in a way that echoed the successful misdirection over the right to roam announcement.

Tories cast down by the revelation that corporation tax was to be further decreased thought they had their first glimpse of light when the Chancellor turned to his levy on the business use of energy. Mr Brown allowed the weight of this new burden on business to rest deliciously on their consciousnesses for a moment. Then, just as they were stumbling upright, he bowled them over again: "These increases will be revenue neutral!" he declared triumphantly, announcing a cut in national insurance to offset the new burden.

Labour MPs crowed at the sly post-script, which became the model for all of the Chancellor's succeeding announcements. He allowed Tory hopes to rise only so that the fall would be more painful.

He was at his most feline when he came to the much-expected introduction of a 10p rate of tax. Given that this could be introduced only when it was prudent, he said solemnly, it will not start in April 2000. Labour backbenchers sagged and Tories perked up.

And then, after a pause of malicious perfection, Mr Brown delivered the kicker: "It is prudent for taxpayers to get the benefit now!" Labour MPs waved their order papers with an unforced glee. It was hard to know what they relished more - the delivery of another Labour promise or the manner in which it had been rubbed into the Opposition's face.

A lone Tory voice ventured a desperate kamikaze attack - "Is that it?" it said, generating a great guffaw from replete Labour backbenchers. It wasn't, because Mr Brown had one last afterthought, a promise that the basic rate of income tax would come down next year by a penny in the pound and the cue for a happy tumult from the Labour benches.

By the end of his speech he appeared to have taken from nobody and given to all - and all that Mr Hague could do was call in question this apparently magical levitation. He did pretty well in the circumstances but after a performance of such catty brio he couldn't help but come across as the mouse that roared.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Executive

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior SEO Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Online Customer Service Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Online customer Service Admi...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global, industry leading, ...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk