Alan Watkins: Another fine mess of the PM's making

As the 10p tax furore has illustrated, Gordon Brown's disposition is to make life more complicated than it is already
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The Independent Online

All prime ministers twist, turn, feint, hesitate and retreat. Margaret Thatcher retreated before the miners in 1981. Meanwhile, she encouraged Nigel Lawson to build up coal stocks (this was before he became Chancellor). The Conservative government saw out the strike three years later.

In 1969 Harold Wilson retreated from the parliamentary party and the trade union movement, which was to reach the height of its power 10 years later on. The wisdom of the wise is now that Wilson and his sidekick Barbara Castle should have pressed on and passed the legislation restricting the unions' powers. But I am not at all sure that, at the time, it would have worked.

John Major had a rougher time altogether. He had a smaller majority which, by the date of the 1997 election, had vanished completely. He made the mistake of subjecting the Maastricht Treaty to a line-by-line examination on the floor of the House in 1992-93. On one occasion, in summer 1993, the government was defeated, and the position had to be remedied next day by means of a vote of confidence.

I write that Sir John (as he was to become) made a mistake. More arguably, he acted in the interests of parliamentary government, though he received precious little thanks as a result of his open ways. Having paid tribute to the sovereign powers of the House of Commons, the newspapers of the day went on to denounce Sir John as "weak" and his party as a "rabble". There was simply no pleasing some people.

Mr Gordon Brown resolved to avoid the same mistake, if mistake it was. Instead the Lisbon Treaty was examined through a series of ministerial essays. The only people who found themselves in trouble were the poor old Liberal Democrats, because of their contortions over the referendum. But now Mr Brown finds himself in more serious trouble, because of income tax. In a few weeks' time, the 42-day detention limit may have to be added to the list. Mr Brown has quite enough to worry about as it is.

Mr Brown's disposition is to make life more complicated than it is already. His is not a calming influence. Oddly enough, when he took over last summer, all the papers told us that he was indeed a reassuring presence, after the febrile excitements of the Blair years. If fooled we were, we should not have been.

In that vaingloriously entitled "ministry of all the talents" (a short-lived and not particularly successful administration, if I remember correctly), Mr Brown did not seem to be altogether clear about who was in his government, and who was an adviser merely.

For instance, is Shirley, Lady Williams, a Liberal Democrat peer, also a government adviser? And, if she is, is she so to speak, permanently on call, or available only for special projects? I only ask. Likewise, Digby, Lord Jones, apparently takes the Labour whip in the Lords without taking the preliminary precaution of joining the Labour Party first.

All these signs of oddity in Mr Brown were evident well before the reassembly of Parliament. What did for Mr Brown was not only the calling-off of the election, but also the tinkering with taxation by Mr Alistair Darling. Lowering the incidence of inheritance tax might or might not have been a good thing (I think it was). But there was not the slightest need for Mr Brown to do it simply to try to match the Tories. The election had already been postponed. The 2008 Budget was the right time and place for doing it.

Mr Brown has now got himself into another fine mess. His only defence is that no one else saw it coming. The 10p band was introduced by him in 1999. Later on he announced he was lowering the standard rate from 22p to 20p. To make up this sum, he abolished the 10p band, so leaving numerous voters worse off.

I cannot for the life of me see why the 10p band should not be restored or a group of citizens taken out of income tax altogether. The favoured solution, however, or part of it, is for the winter heating allowance to be increased for those aged between 60 and 64.

But lots of people do not qualify for this payment. In any case, it is a flat-rate sum. It is not means tested. Mr Brown has spent most of his time as Chancellor re-establishing the means-test state. That is partly why I write of his disposition to make life more complicated than it is already.

Mr Brown produced some flyblown rhetoric about poverty at Prime Minister's Questions which seemed to take some correspondents in. Then he was gone, woof, in a puff of smoke. He might at least have sent Mr Darling to represent the Government on Newsnight. Instead No 10 dispatched Ms Yvette Cooper, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to the studio to deal as best she could with Dr Vince Cable, Mr George Osborne and Mr Jeremy Paxman.

Confronted by such formidable adversaries – Dr Cable and Mr Paxman are certainly formidable – the representative of Her Majesty's Government put up a brave show. The word "feisty" could have been invented specially for her benefit. She deserved a medal simply for turning up. Alas, she did not have the faintest idea of what she was supposed to be talking about.

We were not told the numbers who would have been affected, the sums that would have to be reimbursed or the starting date or dates of these repayments.

The trouble is not, presumably, that Ms Cooper will not tell us but that she does not know. She does not know because the clever young men and women in the Treasury have been unable to work it out. It is like being given oranges when what you really want are apples.

One of the many malcontents on the Labour benches, Mr Dai Havard, the MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said after the retreat on Wednesday that Mr Frank Field should have "held out" and "closed the deal" at a later stage of the proceedings.

Whatever concessions had been extracted by Mr Field, I am still unable to see why matters should not be put right by the very system of taxation which Mr Brown messed up in the first place rather than by a complicated set of additional benefits.

After all that, there will be the contest for Mayor of London. It will almost certainly have more serious consequences – for the two big parties anyway – than they did on the two previous occasions. It is not for me to make recommendations, but some people seem to be confused about second preferences.

If you want Mr Brian Paddick as mayor, there is no point in giving him your second preference. If, however, you want either Mr Ken Livingstone or Mr Boris Johnson, there is every point in choosing one or the other as No 2, whether the first choice goes to Mr Paddick or to somebody else.

The ballot paper is to be marked with crosses in separate columns, not with numerals. A sole vote is allowed. There does not have to be a second preference. That is my public-service journalism for the week.

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