A Budget to boost the prospects of the Labour Party - and the Chancellor

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The Independent Online

Any Chancellor presenting a pre-election Budget has to walk the finest of political tightropes. He must bend just far enough in the direction of sceptical voters to cover as many of his government's perceived vulnerabilities as he can. If he bends too far, however - if he is thought to be too lavish or indiscriminate in his generosity - he risks falling into the charge that he is cynically trying to bribe the electorate, while also storing up big liabilities for the future.

Any Chancellor presenting a pre-election Budget has to walk the finest of political tightropes. He must bend just far enough in the direction of sceptical voters to cover as many of his government's perceived vulnerabilities as he can. If he bends too far, however - if he is thought to be too lavish or indiscriminate in his generosity - he risks falling into the charge that he is cynically trying to bribe the electorate, while also storing up big liabilities for the future.

Yesterday, Gordon Brown kept his balance, with only a very occasional wobble. His handouts were, by and large, well judged. They were consistent with the Government's known priorities and they were not so generous as to smack of recklessness, either electoral or fiscal. Even if we had not already suspected which constituencies Labour's election campaign would be targeting, we surely do now.

This was a Budget aimed at pensioners, families with children and - although perhaps less than the large rise in the stamp-duty threshold might suggest - first-time home-buyers. In other words, it was a Budget for voters, especially all those Labour voters who might be wavering.

Child tax credit is to be increased as well as child benefit. Older teenagers are to be offered an allowance to stay on at school. The hefty council tax refund for pensioners, the pledge on free local bus travel, along with the small rise in the inheritance tax threshold, may persuade some pensioners to think twice before accepting the inducements so far on offer from the Tories or the Liberal Democrats.

Doubling the point at which stamp duty on house purchases becomes payable was a neat concession. More generous than expected, it was geared to the headlines, while doing little to help aspiring buyers in the South-East. Regrettably, the Chancellor passed up the chance to restructure stamp duty to smooth out the abrupt jumps that tend to distort house prices at the margins.

There was a nod in the direction of savers with the sensible extension of the ISA scheme at least until 2010. Drivers were squared with the decision not to increase vehicle excise duty, petrol tax or tax on company cars. Few would take issue with the increases on alcohol and cigarettes, except perhaps to wonder if they were big enough.

The month or so before an expected election is not a time when government projections are necessarily at their most reliable or enduring. And while the concessions, in frozen taxes and enhanced tax breaks, do not seem excessive, they do have a cost. The question asked repeatedly by the Tory leader in his response - where is the money going to come from? - deserves a more substantial reply than the stream of percentages reeled off by Mr Brown in defence of his stewardship of the nation's finances. The additional funding earmarked for the armed forces seems, in the light of the Government's commitments in Iraq alone, especially optimistic.

Overall, the Chancellor's figures may be open to query, but they cannot, at this stage, be disproved. And there can be no doubt that this Budget did the job it was supposed to do: it encouraged specific constituencies, it disappointed few and it left the impression of responsible housekeeping. It will not have harmed Labour's prospects of re-election; they have probably been improved.

Truth to tell, it did the Chancellor's personal prospects no harm either. Whether he was, as Michael Howard insisted, presenting his last Budget, hardly matters. He was master of his métier, comfortable defining the broad international arena or the narrow national picture, drawing on observations from his recent travels, envisaging the place he would like Britain to occupy in a fast-changing world and the sort of country he would like Britain to be.

With Tony Blair so tainted by Iraq, Gordon Brown smoothly underlined what a substantial electoral asset he is to his party. Not for the first time, it is easy to envisage him as the occupant of the house next door.

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