Steve Richards: Gordon Brown is keeping his fingers crossed, but he will face a tough choice soon

I'd be very surprised if Mr Blair figured greatly in the Chancellor's plans for a shared national British purpose
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown has delivered a Budget for the long term partly because this is in the immediate interest of the Government. Like Tony Blair, but for different reasons, he wants another landslide election victory. Both of them recognise that the stability of the economy is their strongest card. In yesterday's Budget Mr Brown sought to be the prudent vote winner.

Gordon Brown has delivered a Budget for the long term partly because this is in the immediate interest of the Government. Like Tony Blair, but for different reasons, he wants another landslide election victory. Both of them recognise that the stability of the economy is their strongest card. In yesterday's Budget Mr Brown sought to be the prudent vote winner.

Not that his prudence extended to resisting any tax cuts. The Conservatives are planning to propose a cut for those on low income and some homeowners. Mr Brown did the same. Already Michael Howard has made waves by offering the elderly discounts on their council tax bills. The Chancellor responded by also pledging a reduction for pensioners.

But even in this minor pre-election tax-cutting auction there are differences. Mr Brown is targeting more resources on those with lower incomes through his tax credits and a flat-rate reduction in the council tax. This is a battle that does not lead very far, not least because the proposed reductions in council tax are a one-off payment for this year alone, a crude pre-election bribe from both the main parties. Local taxation has been kicked into the long grass, as demonstrated by the Government's decision to hold a post-election review of its earlier review of the future of the council tax.

Indeed the entire noisy clash over tax and spending is about relatively little. It is a tribute to Tony Blair and Mr Brown that the Conservatives are scared to pledge bigger tax cuts. To some extent they have made public spending respectable once more. Even so it is also a huge compliment to Margaret Thatcher that Mr Blair and Mr Brown are equally frightened of contemplating higher taxes.

Of greater interest were Mr Brown's hints about his future political and economic strategy. He likes to bring together policies and values that are thought to be incompatible.

The Budget was littered with characteristic Brownite juxtapo-sitions placed under the broad aspiration for "profitable enterprise and public investment". In order to achieve both he highlighted the importance of less regulation and maintaining "standards required for a stable society". Specifically he hailed one example of regulation, the minimum wage, and at the same time pledged that there would be fewer health and safety inspections for the best performing companies.

While highlighting the importance of "affordable tax cuts" there was also an impassioned defence of public spending. Recently he has talked about the need for a progressive consensus. Yesterday Mr Brown was even more ambitious in seeking a "shared national British purpose'" in which economic stability led to more investment in education and science. Note the two adjectives. This was not just a national purpose, nor a mere British purpose. It was both.

There was a striking passage when he highlighted how much more was being spent on various public services since 1997. Once Mr Brown would not have dared to boast about the high levels of cash that he was spending. Now he taunts the Conservatives with the figures. Intriguingly he wants to make a patriotic case for maintaining and, in some cases, increasing the level of public spending.

Like the rest of the Budget Mr Brown's evocation of a shared national purpose was partly aimed at the Conservatives. He does not envisage Michael Howard joining him in his crusade. Mr Howard did not seem especially bothered. The Conservative leader is in good form at the moment. It is amazing what a few modestly encouraging polls can do to a leader's confidence. His response to the Budget yesterday was witty and delivered with a flourish. He looked as if he was enjoying himself. More importantly he has a potent soundbite, repeated several times in his speech and to be delivered several hundred more times between now and the election. Mr Howard declared this was a "vote now pay later" Budget, suggesting that taxes would rise under Labour after the election.

The Conservatives should not get carried away. The potency of the slogan presents Mr Howard with problems too.

If Labour will be forced to increase taxes because of the state of the economy it is not clear why he would be in a position to cut them. Either there is a gaping black hole in the public finances or there is not. Assuming that there is one, Mr Howard will not be able to leap over it painlessly as a newly elected prime minister. For the second successive election Labour will claim with some credibility that the Conservative sums do not add up, a reverse of the situation in the 1980s when Labour was tormented fatally by the same accusation.

I would be very surprised if Mr Blair figured greatly in the Chancellor's plans for a shared national British purpose. Probably the role envisaged for Mr Blair is as marginal as for Mr Howard.

Meanwhile Mr Blair has a different vision of the national purpose. At least in relation to the reform of public services. He might seek to realise it without Mr Brown getting in the way. But on the whole the speculation about whether Mr Blair will sack Mr Brown is fun but pointless. Mr Blair will not decide what to do, or whether he is politically strong enough to act in the way he wishes, until the day after the election.

I've already written that I do not believe that he should remove Mr Brown from his post, but Mr Blair likes to keep his options open. I suspect he will be busy keeping his options open for several more weeks.

A more fruitful question is whether the Chancellor can bring about the sense of a shared national purpose he obsessively seeks. Mr Brown wants to combine the dynamism and flexibility of the US economy with public services that lead the world. Once more yesterday he was scornful of the economic growth in the eurozone and noted that it was the economies of Britain and North America that were performing well. Yet it is the public services in the eurozone that are much better than those in Britain.

Mr Brown is keeping his fingers crossed that growth will deliver the money required for investment in schools, hospitals and Britain's embarrassingly appalling transport system (no model there for Mr Brown's British pride). But at some point he will face the choice of higher taxes or cuts in public services. That will test a sense of shared national purpose.

This is for the future, not a pre-election Budget where the scope for candour is non-existent. Some pre-election Budgets have been too reckless with the economy in order to win votes (Nigel Lawson in 1987 and Norman Lamont in 1992). Some have been cautious and failed to win votes (arguably Roy Jenkins in 1970). Mr Brown got the balance right with a neutral Budget that offers some targeted pre-election bribes. That was the easy bit. In more ways than one the challenge for Mr Brown comes once the election is safely out of the way.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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