Politics: The Sketch: Gordon Brown: the best chancellor the Tories never had

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THE GHOSTS of Margaret Thatcher and Harold Macmillan haunted the House of Commons yesterday as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, made his public expenditure statement.

Wearing his usual granite countenance, Mr Brown hammered home his policy of fiscal rectitude and financial prudence before a confused opposition and a bemused phalanx of his backbenchers.

I have listened to Chancellors down the ages, during Budget speeches and public expenditure statements, and never understood anything they said except for one line. Today was no exception. Chancellors have their own language and, not knowing how many beans make five, I need a translation afterwards.

The opposition did not know whether to cheer or jeer. As Air Traffic Control, the Royal Mint, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, the Tote, and everything else fell to the private sector in a single afternoon, many Tories were crying out "more, more".

Labour backbenchers cheered weakly but their stony faces showed how Thatcherism has been given a new lease of life under Gordon Brown, the best Chancellor the Thatcher government never had. "He's one of us," I can hear the former prime minister saying.

Public expenditure will be "prudent", "cautious", "efficient" and "stable", while everything that can be flogged will be sold to the private sector.

If Macmillan were still alive he would have dusted off his famous "selling the family silver" speech. Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner should get his words reprinted and sent to every Labour MP who still possesses a semblance of independent thought.

If a Tory Chancellor had made this statement in the 1980s, the Labour Party, from front bench to back bench would have predicted the equivalent of a nuclear war, famine and riots in the streets.

Tories would have been throwing their order papers in the air with delight and an up-and-coming backbench Tory MP called Francis Maude would have asked a sycophantic, obsequious, well-rehearsed planted question offering his full support.

Mr Maude is now back in the Commons as the Shadow Chancellor and had to oppose the statement. Since he really agreed with it, this was a difficult task and he can be forgiven for not really putting much passion into his response.

Mr Maude has not yet quite come to terms with the change to the Commons since he was re-elected in 1997 after a five-year absence. He looks important and ministerial and indeed was a high-flyer under Thatcher and Major. If he ever becomes a minister again, he will be outstanding. But like so many of the Tory front bench, he has not yet got the hang of opposition. Ann Widdecombe should give them all tutorials.

He had a weak joke: "Goodbye Iron Chancellor, may he rust in peace" and contradicted this with another: "It's easy to be an Iron Chancellor when putting your hands in other people's pockets." He is a serious player so he should stick to what he is good at: being serious.

Mr Brown got his own back by reminding Mr Maude he was the man who actually signed the Maastrict treaty.

Mr Brown warmed to his theme in a way I last heard at a meeting of the No Turning Back Group in the early 1980s. He had his usual list of grand phrases "break with old dogmas", "re-equip Britain", and "building in new disciplines", while his trusty friend "Prudence" made her appearance at least seven times in 10 minutes.

I have a feeling that when Mrs Thatcher reads this morning's papers, a secretary will be told to add Mr Brown's name to her Christmas card list.

Just don't spoil it, Gordon, by joining EMU, otherwise she'll treat you like Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe if you mess up!

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