Steve Richards: A dull Budget but one that sets out the political battle lines of the next election

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown might have called off an early election last autumn but he is still obsessed with the need to win one. Anyone who wants a sneak preview of the battleground at the next election should take note of yesterday's Budget and David Cameron's response. Whether the election is called next year, Gordon Brown's preferred option, or in 2010, the course is set.

The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, uttered the word "stability" so many times yesterday I began to feel sorry for the missing "prudence", the term Mr Brown deployed when he sought to prove he could be trusted with the economy. Mr Darling did not say that he wanted "stability for a purpose" as Mr Brown used to do in relation to prudence, but he might as well have done.

The Chancellor claimed that as a result of his apparently stable course he would be able to do more to achieve Labour's objective of abolishing child poverty.

Stability combined with social justice will be Labour's main pitch at the next election as it was in yesterday's Budget.

Or, as Mr Darling put it in his speech yesterday, Labour stood for a fair Britain in which everyone could "fulfil their potential, in which everyone could succeed". The Chancellor delivered those words, but they were almost certainly written by Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister used virtually the same words in a recent article for the Observer and in his speech to Labour's spring conference. Mr Brown has what he hopes will be a defining theme, that in a global economy there is a chance for everyone to succeed and that government has a role in helping them to do so.

The easily recognisable Brownite cadences in yesterday's Budget do not necessarily reflect badly on Mr Darling. The dysfunctional relationship between Mr Brown and Tony Blair is not a model on which future Chancellors and Prime Ministers should base their relationships. Quite often Mr Blair was not entirely sure what was in the Budget until the last possible moment. Evidently Mr Brown knew what was in yesterday's Budget because he wrote some of it.

At least this means there is a degree of coherence in the messages coming from No 10 and No 11. In the autumn the Brown government lacked any sense of direction with disparate policies being announced each day of the week without any obvious connection. If Mr Brown wants to have a hope of winning next time he must ensure ministerial announcements make some sort of broader sense. That will only happen if ministers sing from the same song sheet. Mr Brown and Mr Darling sing in harmony and they co-wrote yesterday's song sheet.

It is one of the many reasons I predict that Mr Darling will still be Chancellor when the next election is called. His working relationship with Mr Brown is pretty good. He is calm under fire, a necessary quality in dealing with Mr Brown and with the external events that can erupt around a Chancellor, or at least have erupted around Mr Darling. I cannot think of any other minister who would have retained their equilibrium and, in private, their sense of the ridiculous in the way that Mr Darling has done in recent months.

Some I suspect would not have survived the onslaught, much of which was not of his making. If the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, had been Mr Brown's first Chancellor his career might have been in tatters by now. He was well out of it last autumn and is best placed out of it this side of an election. Mr Darling can look forward to delivering at least one more Budget until the election is called.

Yesterday David Cameron made clear what he would be saying when he finally hits the elusive campaign trail. Mr Cameron insisted that the Government wasted billions in the good times and now has no spare cash when the economy stumbles. There was even a Margaret Thatcher type homily in his assessment: "In the years of plenty they put nothing aside. They didn't fix the roof when the sun was shining". To be precise Mr Cameron did not blame the Government, but focused his attack on Mr Brown. The Prime Minister and his record will be at the centre of the Tory campaign whenever the election is called.

There are risks for both parties in their approaches. Mr Darling will be keeping his fingers crossed that proclamations of stability are matched by a period of steadiness in the economy and elsewhere. This is by no means guaranteed. It is harder to personify stability if you are announcing that discs are missing, that a bank is being reluctantly nationalised and the economy is slipping into recession.

But Mr Cameron has a lot to answer before he will be in a position to make much use of the Government's vulnerability. If the economy is in as bad a state as he suggests there will be no scope for tax cuts under a Tory government at any stage in its opening term and he better admit as much.

Yesterday's onslaught contained little sense of what he would do in such circumstances. Instead his Shadow Cabinet continues to send confusing signals about its spending plans while much of his party yearns for tax cuts. His attack on Labour's foolishly rushed plans for non-domiciles was blunted by the fact that he is proposing a more sweeping tax. In one of many highly political moves, Mr Darling stated he would be making no more demands on non- domiciles this term "or next", preparing for another of Mr Brown's famous dividing lines at the time of the election.

It is also by no means certain that the Tories' onslaught on Mr Brown will resonate. Views on Mr Brown oscillate wildly. At the moment the attacks hit home, but that might change. Before the last election the Conservatives were planning a campaign on the basis of 'Vote Blair, Get Brown'. Suddenly they discovered Mr Brown was more popular than Mr Blair and they had to drop it. A year ago polls suggested Mr Brown would be an unpopular Prime Minister. Over the summer and early autumn Mr Brown became so popular he almost called an election. Now he is in the doldrums once more.

If I were Mr Cameron I would not work on the assumption that Mr Brown will be a liability at the election. He might be. He might not be. It will depend on the voters' latest verdict, which changes often in relation to Mr Brown.

In this era of 24-hour rolling ministerial announcements the Budget has become a relatively peripheral event. By the time a Chancellor stands up we have had the spending reviews, the pre-Budget reports, statements on plans for transport, climate change and the rest, pre-announced, announced and re-announced once more.

Yesterday Mr Darling had even less room for manoeuvre to announce new initiatives. Instead he gave us the outline of the next general election.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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