Michael Brown: Punch, Judy and the shape of things to come


Parliament got a foretaste of life after the eventual demise of Tony Blair yesterday with the first clash between Gordon Brown and David Cameron since the latter became Tory leader. By common agreement the immediate response by any opposition leader to a Budget is the most difficult parliamentary task of the year. Mr Cameron must have been dreading the occasion, especially since Mr Brown's Budget speeches often turn out to bear little relation to the facts buried in the myriad of documents that subsequently emerge. For this reason, and against his once-stated instincts, Mr Cameron decided to call upon the services of Punch and Judy, and confined himself to overall generalities before sitting down after less than ten minutes.

It was nevertheless a cocky, confident, totally over-the-top performance, complete with pre-cooked jokes such as "an analogue Chancellor for the digital age". His case was that Mr Brown has taxed and borrowed too much. It was not bad but I hope it was not his best. Most important of all, however, he appeared to please his Tory backbenchers. Mr Cameron may prefer consensus politics but Mr Brown intends to leave him no space for soft options. The Chancellor is determined to put confrontation at the heart of all his future dealings with Mr Cameron.

For Mr Brown, the Budget was all about politics, and the crafting of the Budget speech was designed to give us a glimpse of a future Brown premiership. Whether this was his last Budget, however, is still an open question. Insofar as it is ever in his power to repeat his Education Bill tactics, Mr Cameron would be advised to do all he can to keep a wounded Blair in Downing Street for as long as possible.

Many Tories are convinced Mr Cameron should relish the opportunity to face Mr Brown as Prime Minister at the earliest opportunity. Yesterday suggests that, even though Mr Brown may well have been up to his usual smoke and mirrors act, he is still a formidably reassuring presence on the Labour stage. Polls are divided on whether a Cameron/Brown scrap, compared to a Cameron/Blair battle, benefits the Tory leader. But the current damaging internal Labour rows suggest that once Mr Blair is gone Mr Brown will initially preside over a rejuvenated, united party.

For Mr Cameron the gauntlet on future levels of public expenditure was thrown down in yesterday's budget. Mr Brown intends to pose the same questions to him as he has done to Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague: if you think Government spending is out of control and too high will you make cuts and how could you possibly lower taxes? In the past Tories have tried to have it all ways with consequent damage to their economic credibility. At some point it will be necessary to appeal to voters on the basis that public expenditure cuts in some departments will be unavoidable. Indeed, even by the time Mr Brown finds himself in Number 10 it may be that Labour, never mind the Tories, will have to face up to such dilemmas. Even yesterday's flourishes of the Treasury wand over future education spending increases suggested that other departments would be in for budgetary shocks when next year's three-year comprehensive spending plans are announced.

Mr Cameron's central case was that Mr Brown is stuck in the past and is a "roadblock to reform". Actually we glimpsed a Brown future that will be as electorally formidable as ever - until, one day, the money runs out. In which case, spending cuts will be inevitable, either from a Brown or a Cameron government.

* Treasury Budget site

* Chancellor's Statement in full

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam