The Budget of a man who believes that the election is already won

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The Independent Online

This was a pre-election Budget all right, but not as we know it. True, the unexpected freeze on alcohol duties was good old-fashioned populism. True, too, the £4bn net injection into the economy was close to the upper limit of what had been expected by the City.

This was a pre-election Budget all right, but not as we know it. True, the unexpected freeze on alcohol duties was good old-fashioned populism. True, too, the £4bn net injection into the economy was close to the upper limit of what had been expected by the City.

But otherwise it made few concessions to the kind of naked electoralism that might have muddied the Chancellor's distinctive vision of economic policy. It was as consistent with the Brownite goals of enterprise and redistributive social justice as any of the five he has now delivered.

It would be wholly perverse to call this an old Labour Budget. A Chancellor who can draw gasps of appreciation from his own backbenchers with record debt repayment figures has made the weather in his own party in a way that would been utterly unfamiliar in the days of Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan.

So too would the further extension of his restructuring of the tax and benefits system to make work rather than handouts the means by which the most disadvantaged lift themselves out of poverty. His harsh spotlight focused on those who have so far resisted his determination to drive them into productive work.

But none of this should obscure the inescapable fact that this was a thoroughly social democratic, and indeed recognisably Labour, Budget. There was no attempt to bribe middle to higher income Britain by, say, raising the threshold above which a fast-growing number of earners pay higher rate tax. The component of new public spending was at around £2bn notably higher than expected.

The idea of a 1p cut in the standard rate of income tax, was never a runner. It would have prevented the family - and women - friendly increases in maternity pay he unveiled with a flourish. And it would have been notably less progressive - in both senses of that word - than the expansion of the 10p threshold. This will benefit all taxpayers - but those with children, in work, and at the bottom of the income scale, most of all. Complacency is the last word you could use about this most restless and driven of politicians. But this is a Chancellor who surely knows that the election is already won, does not need to produce a classically electioneering budget and instead is using it to seek a mandate to deliver distinctively Labour goals, including those of improved public services, in the second term.

But, secondly, he believes that those objectives are still shared by much of middle England, who also want decent state schools, a reliable NHS, and better public transport. This won't be easy. Pointedly, for a Chancellor frustrated by the slow pace at which departments spend money centrally, he has ensured that the new money will go straight to school heads and hospital trusts to spend as they see fit. Mr Brown knows that to retain that trust Labour will have to deliver much more tangible results in those services in the second term. In the mean time, he is confident that the electorate will give the party the benefit of the doubt in preference to the cuts in tax and spending offered by British Conservatism.

But he is the first Labour Chancellor who enters an election not having to apologise for the party's economic record. Thanks to his distinctive sense of purpose he is where he always wanted to be at this stage in the electoral cycle - not least with public spending at last able to grow as a proportion of GDP. The battle lines have been drawn. Now the people have to choose.

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