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Steve Richards

Steve Richards: Gordon Brown is nowhere, yet everywhere

Without acknowledgement from either side, it is Brown's rulebook that persists

As George Osborne was delivering his Autumn Statement last year, I received a text from someone who had worked for Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor. It read: "I feel as if I am listening to one of Gordon's speeches." The text appeared as Osborne joked about how he had received calls from "some quarters" to slow down his spending cuts. He was rejecting the advice because he did not want to wreck the economy. Of course he was referring to calls that had come from his political opponents. Brown always made precisely the same joke in relation to the Conservatives when making financial statements. There will almost certainly be more such echoes next week in the Budget.

I was reminded of the text as I watched Ed Miliband and Ed Balls deliver their pre-Budget press conference yesterday. I felt I was listening to one of Brown's press conferences, this time from the opposition era when he was shadow chancellor leading up to the 1997 election.

In opposition, Brown made relatively cautious proposals that symbolised a wider political purpose while causing much difficulty for his opponents. Yesterday, Miliband and Balls announced a single new proposal, in effect a tax rise for high earners through changes to tax relief on pensions. The tax rise and spending proposal were both Brown-like in their guile.

The influential Lib Dem MP David Laws recently proposed changing tax relief on the pensions of high earners. Balls knows that Laws's proposal was made for one of two reasons. Either the tax relief was likely to be announced in the Budget and the Lib Dems were keen to get the credit in advance, or Osborne is less keen than the Lib Dems, and Laws was applying pressure. If it is the former, Balls gets there first. If it is the latter, he exacerbates the increasingly volatile tensions within the Coalition by siding with the Lib Dems.

At the press conference, Balls said that the cash would be used to reverse the Tories' "tax credit bombshell". Famously, it was the Conservatives who deployed the slogan "Labour's tax bombshell" with such lethal impact in the 1992 election. After that era-defining defeat, Brown as shadow chancellor stole the Tories' language and turned it on them, repeatedly highlighting the "Tory tax rises". Balls does the same now.

On their support for keeping the top rate of tax for high earners, the two Eds speak out of conviction and expediency. Polls suggest the top rate is popular. But, in a very Brownite way, Osborne has commissioned a review of how much cash the top rate has raised, having already decided on the outcome: he wants to drop it. The two Eds sense that the politics of all this chime more with their convictions than with Osborne's, but – equally Brown-like – they keep their options open for the next election. Balls declared yesterday that no tax rate is "cast in stone". If Osborne scraps the top rate, it is by no means certain that Labour will go into the next election pledged to put it up again.

Of course, that is one of the reasons why the game-playing Chancellor is tempted to strike. Labour is divided over the top rate, with Tony Blair opposed and the former Chancellor Alistair Darling stressing its temporary nature. Privately, Ed Miliband believes it should be permanent, but the private convictions and public acts of a leader seeking to win an election are not necessarily the same.

For now, Miliband and Balls use a few relatively small tax policies to make very big arguments about fairness and growth. Brown did the same in the run-up to 1997 when, in effect, his message was that the economy was falling off a cliff and he planned to offer help for pensioners in the winter.

On one level, we should not be surprised that the Brown rule book is assiduously followed. Balls and Miliband worked for him as Labour won three times, including a landslide five years after the 1992 defeat. Osborne was involved in three traumatic losses for the Conservatives after Brown had outwitted them in the central area of the economy.

But, on another level, the continuing influence of Brown in the key battleground of economic policy-making is mind-blowing. He is so out of fashion, he hardly utters a word in the UK. Miliband and Balls are happy to let it be known that they meet with Tony Blair, a figure still revered in parts of the media. They keep their distance from Brown, fearing that any direct association will be fatal for them. Osborne listens to Blair's memoir on his iPod while regarding Brown and his two protégés as dream opponents.

Yet, without acknowledgement from either side, it is Brown's rulebook that persists. Lacking – for different reasons – their own publicly authentic voices, David Cameron and Ed Miliband copy the style and mannerisms of Blair, but, perhaps because Blair never had a distinct, thought-through economic policy, the election winner is no guide in the thorny, make-or-break area of politics and the economy. Instead, the other co-founder of New Labour, who is never seen nor praised and is widely castigated, continues to hold sway.