Heath looked hopeless, too (until he won)

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have long been sceptical of initial assessments of Budgets, ever since participating in one many years ago. In reality I was more an onlooker than a participant, doing nothing much except writing a column in the normal way and observing others go about their tasks. What happened was that the recently installed editor of the New Statesman, Richard Crossman, decided that the 1971 Budget should be fully covered by the magazine. In those days Budgets were delivered on Tuesdays, which made life easier.

I have long been sceptical of initial assessments of Budgets, ever since participating in one many years ago. In reality I was more an onlooker than a participant, doing nothing much except writing a column in the normal way and observing others go about their tasks. What happened was that the recently installed editor of the New Statesman, Richard Crossman, decided that the 1971 Budget should be fully covered by the magazine. In those days Budgets were delivered on Tuesdays, which made life easier.

I advised him not to do it. The NS, I pointed out, hit Scunthorpe on a Saturday, if Scunthorpe was lucky, by which time the proposals of Anthony Barber (if you remember him) would be pretty cold mashed potato. They would have been given in exhaustive, not to say exhausting, detail not only on television but by the daily papers as well. The papers had both the staff and the experience to set out all those fiddly little tables showing how a solitary pensioner or a family of four non-smokers or what-have-you would fare in the coming year; whereas we possessed neither the people nor the expertise to perform these functions. I told him, but he wouldn't listen.

We gathered in Crossman's small room in the Commons (for, like Iain Macleod at The Spectator and Boris Johnson at the same magazine today, he had remained an MP). The malign Thomas Balogh, who was loosely attached to the NS, proved virtually useless. Another, nicer Oxford economist, Roger Opie, who occupied a similar position on the magazine, was even worse. He misplaced a decimal point, with the consequence that all our figures were wrong. It was a case of what a Victorian politician called "those damned dots". Altogether it was a complete fiasco.

It did not make the slightest difference, whether to the reputation of the magazine or to that of Lord Barber, as he later became. In a few weeks everyone had forgotten his Budget. With Mr Gordon Brown it is the same story, except that it is happening after a few days. The only piece of largesse that anyone seems to remember is the £200 for pensioners to set off against the council tax. This aroused particular glee on the government benches, with Mr Alan Johnson pointing gleefully at the Opposition in a particularly crazed fashion.

But this is a single payment, what Sir Alec Douglas-Home called a "donation" before the 1964 election. He was much criticised for what was taken to be a patronising use of the word, though it was accurate enough. Certainly it is what Mr Brown is proposing. The Conservative offer of half the bill up to a maximum of £500 over five years is much more handsome.

I am unclear, incidentally, about whether Mr Brown's £200 (or Mr Michael Howard's extended £500) is to be provided as a cash payment, like the winter fuel allowance, and accordingly liable to be spent enjoyably on painted ladies and gin-and-tonic, or, rather, is an item in a column in a bill from the town hall. Either way, as Mr Vincent Cable, for the Liberal Democrats, correctly said on Newsnight, it is a palliative - though it does not follow from this that a local income tax, which is what his party proposes, would be any more satisfactory in the long run.

Mr Cable, who could open the boring for Yorkshire at any time, is highly regarded, it may be on account of his possession of those very qualities of solidity, even stolidity. Mr Oliver Letwin, the Conservative Shadow Chancellor, is undoubtedly a bright lad, though educated out of his wits. His qualities do not shine so brightly when he is against Mr Brown as they did when he was against Mr David Blunkett, who really ought not to be allowed to hang on to his desirable residence provided at public expense. But this is by the way. Mr Letwin was not even on Newsnight. His place was taken by Mr George Osborne; while Mr Paul Boateng, who is in any case shortly to leave these shores permanently for the Dark Continent, was on parade to represent the Labour interest.

The mischief does not derive from the television studio but from the House of Commons. It is absurd that the reply to the Budget should be delivered by the Leader of the Opposition, not the Shadow Chancellor, and that the leader of the third party should then be expected to perform too. In fact (by which I mean, as people usually do, in my opinion) Mr Charles Kennedy did rather well, the more so as he has never pretended that public finance is his special subject. So did Mr Howard do well. But so also did Mr William Hague likewise; and much good did that do him at the last election.

Four years later the circumstances are different. The Tigris and the Euphrates have been flowing through No 10. Paradoxically but comprehensibly, the more obediently Mr Howard follows Mr Tony Blair's injunction and refrains from mentioning the war, the more convincing does he appear. To deprive Mr Blair of his majority, Labour must lose 90 seats. In the 1945-51 period, Labour lost 98. In 1970, when Harold Wilson lost the election that everyone was expecting him to win, Labour was down by 76.

I am taking the seat-count between one election and the next rather than between dissolution and the new Parliament. No recent loss is comparable to that of the Conservatives in 1997, when they went down by 171. That figure was itself the consequence of the 1992 result. For this there are several theories. Thus: the electors were frightened by John Smith's redistributive proposals, even though we were then only just emerging from a Conservative recession which had its origins in Nigel Lawson. And they did not take to Neil Kinnock. No Welshman has been elected Prime Minister since David Lloyd George - there was no one before him - and he was elected only once, in 1918, having succeeded H H Asquith in 1916 by means of a Cabinet coup. Lord Kinnock was not seen as competent, perhaps unfairly so; whereas people think of Mr Howard as industrious and efficient but as someone who could do with a spell at the charm school.

However, Margaret Thatcher was never regarded as specially likeable either: rather the reverse. In 1979, moreover, there were doubts about whether she would ever be elected Prime Minister, not only because of a certain genteel quality - which was seen, wrongly, as antipathetic to the voters - but also because she was a woman. And in 1970 Sir (as he then wasn't) Edward Heath was looked upon as a hopeless case, an organ-playing bachelor, for he had not then acquired fame as a sailor. Compared to Sir Edward in 1970, Mr Howard, considered personally, has nothing to worry about at all.

Comments