Tomorrow, Gordon Brown delivers his Budget in a most peculiar and febrile pre-election context. Contrary to reports, Mr Brown is still on the margins of Labour's wobbly campaign and has profound doubts about the way it is being run. Not surprisingly, those responsible for the campaign have worries about what the Chancellor is up to. Fleetingly, all are united in the hope that the Budget will give the Government a boost, propelling the economy to the centre of Labour's appeal.
The commonly held aspiration is, in itself, a minor victory for the Chancellor. In the early autumn of last year, leading members of the Blairite court were warning that Mr Brown was too cautious as an election strategist, relying too heavily on the state of the economy. With a persistent vagueness they expressed a desire to be more "radical". Now they are keeping their fingers crossed that the economy will deliver, having failed to discover what they meant by "radical". For several years they cheered each other up by fantasising about how bold they would be if only Mr Brown were out of their way. Now he no longer blocks their path, they ask with a contorted irritation: where is he?
The current tensions stem from the tempestuous summer and the hardly less stormy events of the early autumn. Tony Blair returned from his holidays resolved to take on Mr Brown rather than appease him any longer. The return of Alan Milburn became a symbol of Mr Blair's renewed political hunger. Mr Milburn did not particularly want to rejoin the Cabinet, but knew the symbolism had become so potent that his refusal to do so would be read as a humiliation for his old friend Mr Blair. In his lengthy negotiations, Mr Milburn sought assurances that the Prime Minister would back him in future disputes with Mr Brown. Mr Blair told him he was more than ready to do so. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have hardly spoken since.
In a bizarre separation of roles, Mr Blair has got on with planning the campaign. Mr Brown has prepared his Budget. I hasten to add that he attends some election meetings and Mr Blair has been consulted at a very late stage about the Budget, but I would not put the degree of mutual co-operation much higher than that.
Now there is the inevitable twist. Labour's campaign is not going especially well. A senior government insider tells me that the party's latest internal polling is "terrible". Probably there is a small part of Mr Blair that still recognises Mr Brown to be the most formidable strategist in the Government. But the humiliating symbolism of the Chancellor's formal return to the heart of the campaign would outweigh any tactical benefits. The consequences of decisions taken by Mr Blair seven or eight months ago are still being played out.
We should not get carried away. This is still an early stage in the election campaign. So far the contest has been the equivalent of watching Match of the Day without any football being played. Why let the football get in the way when we can be entertained by interviews with various managers and analysts about whether they are deploying the right tactics? The political match of the day takes the form of analysis over whether Labour's campaign is being run by the wrong people in the wrong way and assessments as to why the Conservatives' approach is supposedly successful. Policies, and the difference between the parties, do not get on to the pitch.
Partly the analysis feeds on itself. I have some sympathy for Mr Milburn, who is now known for some reason as Mr Machismo. If Mr Milburn were to tip-toe into a press conference dressed as a ballet dancer he would be dismissed as an unruly northerner. Yet it was only two years ago that Mr Milburn was praised for leaving the Cabinet to spend more time with his family. Mr Milburn has metamorphosed from a man in touch with his feminine side to a backward-looking male without very much happening in between.
Indeed there is a strong argument that Mr Milburn is not being tough enough. When a couple of polls showed the Conservatives narrowing Labour's lead he affected considerable delight: "This shows our voters there is a contest!" The logical conclusion to such an approach is Mr Milburn expressing enthusiasm if the Conservatives win the general election: "Now our supporters know for sure that we are in a contest." I do not believe Labour's strategists are entirely relaxed by such polls. They were capable of getting into a neurotic state when they were 25 points ahead in the polls. I would be very surprised if Mr Milburn reads bleak surveys and exclaims: "Excellent news: another bad poll!"
This is why the Budget is an event of considerable political importance; a matter of bulky substance rather than more pre-match analysis of the previous analysis. I read that the Chancellor is rubbing his hands with glee at the current state of affairs in which some are urging him to come to the rescue. This is not the case. He is still frustrated, knowing that if he campaigns for a day it is a news story and if he is busy elsewhere and does not campaign, that is a news story too. Nor is it clear how he can come to the rescue when others run the campaign. There are not many laughs in being a leader-in-waiting.
In terms of the Budget, Mr Brown has calculated that it is in the interests of the economy and a big election victory for him once more to be prudent with a purpose. There will be much emphasis on the longer term, the challenges in a global economy and the rewards brought about by economic stability. He will contrast his plans with the apparent recklessness of the Conservatives' policies, a reverse of the 1980s. There will be small immediate financial gains for some, but Mr Brown is not seeking headlines about a pre-election give-away.
Nervy Labour MPs are hoping that the parallel with the 1980s is precise and the forthcoming election will be the equivalent of the Conservatives' triumph in 1987. In that election, Labour fought a slick campaign on policies that did not stand up to scrutiny. In contrast, the Conservative government won a landslide partly because of a relatively buoyant economy. The Director General of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones, tells me that the British economy is doing so well that he hopes Mr Brown does absolutely nothing tomorrow. That is asking a little too much, but such an assessment from a business leader highlights the advantages for an incumbent government in charge of a stable economy - and the broader challenge for the Conservatives.
Much will depend on whether the Budget and the economy now form a central part of Labour's campaign or whether, as some of Mr Brown's allies fear, they are a brief diversion before Labour is placed on the defensive once more by Michael Howard's aggressively populist campaign. My analysis of the analysis suggests the Conservatives have won the superficial pre-match skirmishes. Tomorrow the contest begins.Reuse content