Ten budgets on, how well has Chancellor Brown really done?

His record is his passport to No 10 - but has he been a cautious custodian of the nation's finances or has he squandered a big chance? Philip Thornton reports
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Indy Politics

Even the normally lugubrious Gordon Brown allows himself a joke in his Budget speech - and on his tenth and possibly final one as Chancellor he did not disappoint. In fact he gave us two.

With MPs on both sides of the House of Commons speculating madly over when the Chancellor will finally ascend to the premiership, Mr Brown parodied his own career. He said he had now equalled the record held by Nicholas Vansittart, the Tory chancellor in the 1800s, who abolished income tax in his tenth Budget.

Referring to his ambition to succeed Tony Blair, Mr Brown said Mr Vansittart swiftly moved on to a new job. "For Mr Vansitartt being Chancellor was preparation for his next important position in Government - Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster," the current incumbent joked.

The fact that he followed this up with a barb at policy U-turns ordered by the Tory leader David Cameron - pointing out there was no VAT on flip-flops - made it a laugh almost every 30 minutes.

Humour aside, Mr Brown is well aware that the health of the economy is his job application form for the job of Prime Minister. The headline economic data certainly speaks in his favour. The UK has had a record 54 quarters of consecutive growth, of which 39 have occurred under his stewardship. No other government has enjoyed such a long-run of growth.

However, some of the data has started to turn against him. Inflation, as measured on the index that the Bank of England uses when setting interest rates, rose above the 2.0 target last year for the first time since 1998. Unemployment has shown 11 rises over the last year, retail sales growth is stagnant and low levels of investment have prompted accusations that he is taxing the corporate sector out of existence.

Whether it is his economic management, control of the public finances, his battle against world poverty, his use of the tax and benefit system, or his personal management style, the Chancellor divides opinion.

Much of the success can be attributed to his decision to give up the power to set interest rates by granting independence on monetary policy to the Bank of England. The Bank did the hard work of setting rates to ride out the Asian markets crisis, the collapse in share prices, the fall-out from 9/11 and the Iraqi war - but it all followed Mr Brown's self-denial.

However, his critics single out his record on the public finances. Analysis in this supplement on page X shows that the Treasury has been consistently over-optimistic in forecasting his borrowing needs. When this threatened to breach his cherished "golden rule" - that he must borrow only to invest across the economic cycle - he changed the timing of the cycle over which it is judged. Ruth Lea, director of the right-leaning Centre for Policy Studies, says: "Despite the Chancellor's appalling forecasting record and gerrymandering of the cycle, his standing in the financial markets has not been punished. This partly reflects the resilience of the strong economy he inherited in 1997."

But chancellors are judged on their own record, not their predecessors', and the current regime has built up an acknowledged reputation for forecasting economic growth.

By banking the results of the auction of 3G mobile phones licences at the start of the cycle in 1999 and reaping the rewards of tight spending controls in the previous two years, he was able to build up substantial surpluses.

While avoiding increases on income tax and cutting corporation tax, Mr Brown still has enemies in the business community after 66 stealth tax increases.

This allowed him to run up current deficits as the economy turned down. The markets showed their approval by funding the government's borrowing need and buying UK assets, pushing the pound up.

Even the economic record is not wholly untarnished if one scratches beneath the surface. While the economy has created some 2 million jobs since 1997, more than a million manufacturing jobs have gone to the wall. The volume of household debt has broken through the one trillion pound mark as soaring house prices forced buyers to take out larger mortgages.

Meanwhile, figures show two out of five of new jobs - 600,000 posts - have been created by Whitehall rather than the wealth-creating sector. Critics also point out much of the recent economic boom has been supported by rising personal - as well as government - debt levels.

But there is one successful policy that Mr Brown is surprisingly reticent on. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, he has redistributed from the rich to the poor. While economic growth has worsened income inequality slightly since 1997, Mr Brown has done his best to ameliorate the pain. His fiscal reforms have the poorest tenth of society almost 7 per cent better off in terms of net income while the richest in society are 7 per cent worse off.

Mr Brown's record is hanging in the balance. He might yet need to go back to his stock-in-trade joke that there are only two types of Chancellor - those that fail and those that get out in time.

* 1997

Income tax: Mortgage interest relief cut to 10 per cent from April 1998

VAT: Rate on domestic fuel cut from 8 per cent to 5 per cent.

Excise duties: Road fuel duties commitment raised from 5 per cent per annum to 6 per cent pa real increase Tobacco duty commitment raised from 3 per cent pa to 5 per cent pa real increase

Capital taxes: Graduated stamp duty introduced: 1 per cent for properties between £60,000 and £250,000; 1.5 per cent between £250,000 and £500,000; 2 per cent over £500,000

Company taxes: Windfall tax on privatised utilities Main corporation tax rate cut from 33 per cent to 31 per cent from April 1997 Small companies' rate cut from 23 per cent to 21 per cent from April 1997 Dividend tax credits for pension funds and other companies abolished immediately, for all others from April 1999

Tax take: £17.8bn; Tax/GDP: 35.4 per cent

* 1998

Income tax: Working families' tax credit. Married couple's allowance restricted to 10 per cent. Tax on company cars increased.

Excise duties: Differential widened between diesel and unleaded petrol.

Capital taxes: Personal capital gains tax reformed Stamp duty raised to 2 per cent and 3 per cent

Company taxes: Main rate cut to 30 per cent, small companies' rate to 20 per cent

Tax take: £2.29bn; Tax/GDP: 37.1 per cent.

* 1999

Income tax: Basic rate cut from 23 to 22 per cent; new 10 per cent starting rate. Married couple's allowance abolished from 2000 for under-65s. Children's tax credit announced. Mortgage interest relief abolished. High mileage discounts for company cars reduced

National Insurance: Starting point for payment of employee contributions aligned with income tax by April 2001. Upper earnings limit raised above inflation in both April 2000 and April 2001 Employer contributions on all benefits in kind. Employer rate cut by 0.5 of a percentage point from April 2001

Capital taxes: Stamp duty raised to 2.5 per cent on properties between £250,000 and £500,000, 3.5 per cent on properties over £500,000

Company taxes: New 10 per cent corporation tax rate for companies with low profits introduced from April 2000. Climate change levy from 2001-02.

Tax take: -£6.00bn; Tax/GDP: 36.9 per cent

* 2000

Income tax: Working families' tax credit and child premiums in children's tax credit increased

National Insurance: Employer rate to be cut by 0.3 of a percentage point from April 2001, instead of 0.5 of a percentage point, to reflect reduction in climate change levy. Further cut in employer rate by 0.1 of a percentage point from April 2002, to balance introduction of aggregates levy

Excise duties: Road fuel duty frozen in real terms; cigarettes increased by 5 per cent in real terms

Capital taxes: Stamp duty raised to 3 per cent on properties between £250,000 and £500,000, 4 per cent on properties over £500,000.

Company taxes: Climate change levy cut by £0.7bn from introduction in April 2001; Aggregates levy introduced from April 2002

Tax take: -£6.23 bn; Tax/GDP: 37.7per cent

* 2001

Income tax: Working families' tax credit and child premiums in children's tax credit increased Overindexation of starting-rate band ISA limit extended to £7,000pa until April 2006

Excise duties: Duties for ultra-low sulphur petrol cut by 2p and for ultra-low sulphur diesel by 3p. Tobacco duties increased with inflation Alcohol duties frozen

Company taxes: Abolition of withholding tax on intra-UK corporate interest

Tax take: -£6.93bn; Tax/GDP: 36.8 per cent

* 2002

Income tax: Child tax credit replaces various income-related payments for children Working tax credit for both families with and families without children; working families' tax credit abolished Personal allowances for those aged under 65 to be frozen in cash terms in April 2003

National Insurance: Uncapped 1 percentage point increase in employee, employer and self-employed rates from April 2003

Primary and secondary thresholds and lower profits limit to be frozen in cash terms in April 2003

Excise duties: Fuel duties frozen.

Company taxes: Small companies' rate cut from 20 per cent to 19 per cent. Starting rate of corporation tax reduced from 10 per cent to 0 per cent Research and development tax credit introduced for larger companies at 25 per cent rate Reform to North Sea taxation

Tax take: £12.85bn; Tax/GDP: 36.8 per cent

* 2003

Excise duties: Fuel duties frozen in cash terms until 1 October 2003 Duty differential of 0.5p relative to ultra-low-sulphur fuels from September 2004

Tax take: -£645m; Tax/GDP: 36.8 per cent

* 2004

Income tax: £100 one-off additional to pensioners' winter fuel allowance.

Excise duties: Fuel duties frozen (1.9p a litre rise deferred) 1p increase on pint of beer 4p on a bottle of wine cigarettes rise by 8p a packet

Capital taxes: Stamp duty froze Clampdown on avoidance of inheritance tax

Company taxes: New rules on disclosure on tax avoidance schemes Tax relief of 20 per cent of production costs for films with budget of less than £15m

Tax take: -£830m; Tax/GDP: 37.3 per cent

* 2005

North Sea: Corporation tax payments for oil companies were brought forward bringing in an extra £1.1bn

Company taxes: Another batch of new rules on tax disclosure schemes that net the Treasury £1,1bn a year by 2007/08

Homebuyers: Doubling of the starting threshold for stamp duty to £120,000

Inheritance tax: Threshold raised by 14 per cent to £300,000 by April 2007

Tax take:-£390m. Tax/GDP: 37.9 per cent

* Tax take: total of measures announced in each Budget for next three years. Positive figures equals net tax take

Sources: HM Treasury, Institute for Fiscal Studies

* Treasury Budget site

* Chancellor's Statement in full

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