A Freudian slip, but a confident step forward between

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The Independent Online

If the Government cannot use Gordon Brown's spending statement as a platform for recovery it is in even worse shape than it has looked at times over the past few weeks.

If the Government cannot use Gordon Brown's spending statement as a platform for recovery it is in even worse shape than it has looked at times over the past few weeks.

Ministers now have the opportunity - in a crowded series of announcements over the next fortnight, starting with big increases in funds for fighting crime today - to seize back control of the political agenda which has so persistently eluded it in recent times. Weighed on the electoral scales, £43bn in extra spending over the next three years is surely worth more than a damaging leaked memo from the heart of government and all the "froth" that preceded it.

It isn't, of course, quite as simple as that. The Chancellor and Prime Minister are still paying a price for their joint overspinning of the last public spending announcement in 1998, with the result that the equivalent - though much more solidly based - figures this year will find the electorate much more sceptical than they might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, yesterday's announcement offers a fresh start in what New Labour seems to find the painful process of treating the voters as grown-ups.

Mr Brown's slip yesterday in referring to underspinning instead of underpinning was comfortingly Freudian. His confident statement was not - or so the most cursory reading of the figures in the time available suggests - overspun in language or in content. That isn't to say that it was anything other than highly political - as it should be. His denunciation of what he calls the Tories' £16bn "spending cuts guarantee" may not be wholly fair since the Tories intend increasing spending in real terms and will in any case do their best to throw doubt on whether the money will in fact be spent. Nevertheless the Tories face a dilemma. It is hard at once to say that the figures are an empty chimera and that the Chancellor has abandoned his prudent past, returning to Labour's bad old ways of tax and spend. The dilemma is made all the sharper by the fear that Mr Brown may yet also be able to cut some taxes on the eve of an election, if not on the standard rate, at least by extending the credits to working families and the 10p starting rate.

All the same, there is now a real struggle in British politics between the downward pressure on the size of the state envisaged by the modernised neo-Thatcherism of William Hague and Mr Portillo and the pledge to repair the long legacy of British under-investment which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown make with some passion and equal persuasiveness.

The Tories will seek with considerable energy to persuade voters that the spending will not produce the results claimed for it. But sceptical as the electorate may seem - and providing the leaks, backbiting and spin do not resume with a vengeance - the best bet is that because of the deep yearning for better services, from education to transport, from policing to the NHS, they will give Labour the benefit of the doubt - next time. If it works, Labour may rule for a long time to come. It has never before entered a second election in office, as it will enter this one, without having to apologise for its economic record. And that should be more important than all the noises off, damaging as they have been.

But if real, tangible results in the public services do not materialise after that, Labour will have lost the war not only of votes but of ideas. The battlelines have been drawn - and the battle has a finite ending, most probably some time before the election after next.

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