Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Bears, snakes, and some bad news for Cameron
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Indy Politics

The journalists begged Gordon Brown to play table tennis when he visited the People's University in Beijing yesterday. His Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, added to the pressure by challenging him to a game.

At one point, Mr Brown strode towards the tables where British and Chinese youngsters were playing. The cameramen sprang into action, only to be disappointed. He merely went up to meet the young players. The Prime Minister didn't want to take any chances by taking on someone from the country which has produced more world champions than any other. Nor did he want trivial headlines about ping-pong diplomacy.

You don't get much entertainment on a foreign trip with the dogged and unflashy Mr Brown. There are plenty of signing ceremonies, joint agreements, contracts and memorandums of understanding and tons of praise for his hosts.

His work rate is Stakhanovite: after an hour's sleep on his daytime flight from London, he arrived in Beijing at 7am yesterday and began a gruelling day of back-to-back meetings and ceremonial events lasting 15 hours. And that was before he rang the shop back at No 10.

Underneath the thousands of warm words that I heard yesterday, Mr Brown was giving the Chinese something they were desperate to hear. They will be able to use a controversial £100bn fund to invest in or take over British companies. In return, the Chinese will remove barriers which make it hard for British services to expand in China. Mr Wen called it, "win win progress" and Mr Brown would agree. He believes that his drive to forge a much closer partnership with China will boost the British economy because cheap Chinese imports help keep UK inflation down and that winning Chinese investment will help Britain weather the global economic storms.

The Tories are trying to use the turbulence to tarnish Mr Brown's strong economic record – a given that even they have only just dared to call into question. They sense vot-ers are ready to reassess Mr Brown, claiming his 10 years at the Treasury left Britain with a personal and state borrowing binge and higher taxes without tangible improvements in public services.

Then there are current events. A messy half-retreat over capital gains tax reforms which have alienated British business remains in Mr Brown's bulging pending tray. Crunch time looms over Northern Rock. "It could be Labour's Black Wednesday," said one shadow cabinet member. That was why David Cameron raised the sinking bank rather than Peter Hain at Prime Minister's Questions. But the Opposition flunked the "what would you do?" test, unlike the Liberal Demo crats, who have been calling for nationalisation for months.

Mr Cameron hopes the tectonic plates shifted after his party's highly popular plan for a cut in inheritance tax last October. "Tax cuts are no longer toxic," said one senior Tory. The Tories hope that will make it harder for Mr Brown will not be able to draw his favourite "dividing line" – Labour investment versus Tory spending cuts.

The Tories believe a carefully targeted package of tax cuts can be proposed without giving credence to Labour claims that the Tories would axe public services.

Mr Cameron is gradually adopting a harder edge. His environmentalism has served its purpose of showing a changing party. He now backs nuclear power, the need for energy security taking precedence over flirting with the green lobby. He is more interested in GNP than the rather woolly "general well being" he trumpeted during his "let sunshine win the day" phase. "Our three goals are competence, competence, competence," one Tory frontbencher said.

The Tories sense they may never get a better chance to land some economic blows on the Prime Minister. They deny Labour claims they are repeating the mistake of a former shadow chancellor, Francis Maude, who predicted a "recession made in Downing Street" which never happened. But George Osborne, the current shadow Chancellor, sailed close to the wind eight days ago when he blamed Mr Brown for not preparing us well enough to survive the turbulence. He said: "The trigger may have been pulled by American sub-prime lenders – but the gun was loaded in Downing Street." In fact, he said that in a draft issued to the press before his speech but then toned down the phrase to "loaded at home" – presumably to avoid giving a hostage to fortune.

The Tories know they musn't overdo the gloom: one rule in Labour's pre-1997 playbook was not to run Britain down. Mr Brown calculates that the Tories will not get much credit for predicting it if the economy goes badly but will look silly if things don't turn out to be as bad as they suggest.

Some Tories concede that voters may decide that Mr Brown, for all his faults, is the person they most trust to steer Britain through the storm. Indeed, when the pollster YouGov asked people which animal they associated with the two main party leaders, the highest ratings were for Mr Brown as a bear and Mr Cameron as a snake.

Here in China, it is the Year of the Rat. At home, perhaps Labour' slogan should be: "Not flash, just Brown Bear."

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