After the hype that had preceded the Chancellor's 10th, and presumably last, pre-Budget statement, the presentation itself was reassuringly prosaic. Gordon Brown approached the task with his customary solidity. He framed his plans, as always, with boasts about the strength of the British economy when compared with weakness or volatility elsewhere. And the figures are impressive: low unemployment, a record number of people in jobs, low inflation and manageable public debt. The economy is growing faster than envisaged - even if this is largely accounted for by unanticipated immigration. Perhaps Mr Brown's greatest achievement is to associate a Labour government with fiscal responsibility.
But we have also learnt to be wary about some of the Chancellor's claims. Mr Brown promised additional spending on his signature issues, such as education and child poverty. And while we welcome the additional money for school buildings and apprenticeships, we do so only so long as this is not old money reappearing in a new guise as so often before.
The Chancellor dwelt on fiscal measures to protect the environment, again demonstrating that green issues have moved into the political mainstream. The commitments, so well trailed in advance, however, fell short of what we had hoped for. In headline terms, Mr Brown's ambition for Britain to become the leading centre for carbon trading was laudable, as was his talk of assistance for the development of "green" technologies, and his promise to exempt most carbon-zero homes from stamp duty.
But this is all far in the future. It all sounds fine, but the question is how much Mr Brown will actually do to ensure it happens. So far, he is restricting himself to the easy targets - motorists and air passengers. He is raising fuel duty in line with inflation, but not restoring the fuel duty escalator he so rashly abandoned. He is doubling duty on most air tickets; without taxing airline fuel or the flights themselves, however, the airlines will have little incentive to use their planes more economically. Additionally, the levies are so small they are unlikely to deter travellers.
This timidity, this tendency to tinker and trim, is all too reminiscent of earlier statements. This government and this Chancellor have been in office for almost 10 years. Yet it is only now, with the Eddington report on transport, the Barker report on planning and the Leitch review on training, that some of the country's most conspicuous difficulties are even being analysed. So while yesterday's statement was reassuring in its implied promise of continuity, it was also a reminder of how little has been achieved by this government and the size of the challenge facing the next Prime Minister.Reuse content