Michael Brown: At last, the true heir to the mantle of Geoffrey Howe

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If there was any single measure to stimulate voters' juices in yesterday's Budget, I suspect that most of them missed it. If they were listening, they would have probably fallen asleep long before the end of Alistair Darling's speech. Even the Tory leader, David Cameron, found it impossible in his response to observe the usual Commons convention of congratulating the Chancellor on the presentation of the Budget. "It is not just that it was a dire list of reviews and re-announcements delivered with all the excitement of someone reading out the telephone directory," was what he hit him with.

The mantle of "Mogadon Man" that attached to Geoffrey Howe nearly 30 years ago now passes to Mr Darling. The crucial difference was that Sir Geoffrey had announcements of such historic proportions that we knew we slept through his speeches at our peril.

I suspect that the universal reaction of commentators, which will reinforce even more Mr Darling's reputation for dullness, will be hailed by the Chancellor as a triumph in itself. His objective was to convey an impression of benign neutrality. Rather effectively, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader suggested that, whereas Tony Blair was kept in the dark by Gordon Brown over his Budgets, yesterday's effort was a case of the Chancellor playing dummy to the ventriloquist Gordon Brown. The impression – wrongly held I suspect – that Mr Darling is entirely the creature of Mr Brown is one which will haunt the Chancellor for the remainder of his time in post.

Mr Darling's most important political achievement, however, was that there is no single measure that can be objected to on its lack of merit. This is a far cry from the disaster of his pre-Budget report which unravelled the moment he sat down last October. It will be difficult for the Tories to pick out a single budget initiative over which they can make a huge fuss during the committee stage of the Finance Bill.

The Tories' task is to make the case that this Government is – as Mr Cameron suggested – running out of money and that nothing has been done nothing to put aside resources to cope with the tougher times ahead. For years Mr Brown denied that he was increasing borrowing. This year Mr Darling gave up any pretence that borrowing is under control. It is clear that this government, like all its Labour predecessors, is simply going to borrow its way out of trouble.

The Tories' best stick to beat Labour will be the price increases – admittedly largely beyond politicians' control – in food, fuel and mortgages. While the Chancellor trumpeted that inflation is still hovering around the Government's target, he was forced to acknowledge that it will rise in the short-term.

And for voters on average earnings, where the impact of fuel and food price rises has hit far harder than Mr Darling is willing to acknowledge, real inflation seems like 8 per cent rather than 2 per cent.

Mr Cameron's response hit exactly the right note. But Labour will challenge him and George Osborne with awkward questions. By implication the Tories will want to restore the public finances. They will rightly be able to use the state of the economy as a reason for facing down right-wing calls for tax cuts.

Indeed, the logic of their current position even suggests that – like Sir Geoffrey in 1979 and 1981 – they may temporarily be the party that may have to initially raise taxes. Unless of course they abandon their commitments to stick to Labour's spending plans for the next two years – reasons which got us all into this fix in the first place.