Andrew Grice: A belated attempt to force the hand of the Tory 'gamblers'

Brown raised the political stakes yesterday. The question is, how will he pay for his promises?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The early morning radio and television headlines yesterday gave the game away: the Queen's Speech will include more public service reforms, including measures to provide care for the elderly in their own homes. Oh, and by the way, one of the Bills will ensure the Government halves the huge deficit in the public finances in four years.

It sounded too good to be true. Most reforms cost money upfront, sometimes big money. Ministers insist the £670m cost of the Personal Care at Home Bill will be met from savings in other parts of the health budget. Perhaps, but this is an old trick and there are limits in the current climate how many times it can be played on the voters. Many of the measures announced yesterday were sensible enough – not least on care for the elderly. But they do beg the inevitable question: why has Labour waited 12 years to get round to them?

A Bill to guarantee school standards echoes David Blunkett's "standards, not structures" mantra when Labour came to office. The political wheel often turns full circle. Indeed, Labour diluted some Tory market-based reforms to health and education after 1997, only to bring back a similar version of them later.

Social care is hardly a new issue; some ministers have been nagging Gordon Brown to grasp this nettle for years. It looks a bit late to put it in the spotlight on the eve of a general election. Even if the welcome help for people in their own homes is rushed through, more expensive plans to prevent old people selling their properties to pay care-home fees would still be years away if Labour retains power.

True, the Health Secretary Andy Burnham's vision of a "national care service" in line with the principles of the NHS helps Labour counter the predictable Tory charge that it has run out of steam. It is certainly better than talking about traffic cones, for which John Major was ridiculed before the 1997 election.

Talking up public services may also help Mr Brown's quest to make it a "big choice" election. In yesterday's Commons clash between him and David Cameron, the contours of the election campaign were clear. The Prime Minister contrasted Labour's "guarantees" on services and job chances for young people with the "gamble" of a Tory government. It could be an effective line of attack.

Labour will present itself as more likely to safeguard frontline public services. We will hear a lot about the Tories relishing the prospect of cuts in the six-month election campaign that is now under way.

A "same old Tories" tag might be one of the best shots in Labour's locker: it carries dangers for Mr Cameron, desperate to convince people that his party has changed, and passes the credibility test because the Tories want swifter, deeper cuts.

Of course, yesterday was also about setting traps for the Tories. Very Gordon Brown. "A series of bear traps; we won't fall into them," said one senior Tory. Despite that, Labour celebrated the first "gaffe of the day" when Philip Hammond, the shadow Chief Treasury Secretary, appeared to support Labour's guarantee for cancer patients to see a specialist within two weeks. His comments on Sky News contradicted the official Tory policy to oppose Labour's targets being enshrined in law.

The Tories know they will need to avoid the trap of blocking populist measures – such as a crackdown on bankers' bonuses – when the election is called. There was some dangerous talk from Lord Strathclyde, Tory leader in the House of Lords, where Labour does not have a majority. He suggested that Tory peers would obstruct some of yesterday's measures for the sake of it. Not true, Tory officials insisted last night: Bills will be judged on their merits.

Some Labour MPs, desperate for some good news, had hoped the Queen's Speech would be a "game-changer." It was never going to be at this late stage of the game. The same Labour optimists had similar hopes before this autumn's party conference season, which came and went without moving the opinion polls.

If there is going to be a "game-changer", it will be next month's pre-Budget report. Labour will tell us which areas it would protect and which it would cut, in the hope of forcing the Tories into the open.

Given the need for real rather than symbolic spending cuts, this will be the moment when the most important dividing lines between the parties emerge. Grabbing a headline with a policy initiative or a new Bill is easy. Paying for it is the hard part.