Sean O'Grady: Expect few surprises and plenty of caution

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The Independent Online

Apart from the date, Gordon Brown gave little away about the Budget or any longer-term plans to tackle the budget deficit.

From what one could tell from Mr Brown's language, we should expect few surprises in a fortnight's time. He stressed the fragility of the British economy – and of the eurozone. Mr Brown clearly wants to massage expectations about what may be a disappointing few months of economic news, and he is right to do so.

He himself explained why: "It's pretty obvious what's happening. The European economy which is our major source of growth is not growing fast enough." Latest figures on industrial production seem to confirm Mr Brown's view. It is looking like an "L-shaped" recession: The real question is why, after a 25 per cent depreciation in sterling, interest rates at 0.5 per cent for a year and a £200bn injection of money into the economy, we aren't doing a bit better. It can't all be blamed on Europe's crisis and slowdown.

So Mr Brown's caution is justified; but the difference between him and David Cameron is not as great as either leader's rhetorical flourishes might lead us to think. Mr Brown is already cutting spending and pushing up taxes (the new 50p rate on high earners arrives a week after the Budget): while it is Mr Cameron not Mr Brown who says that immediate spending cuts will not have to be "particularly extensive".

And whether Mr Brown or Mr Cameron wins, a 20 per cent rate of VAT is a pretty safe bet.