With barely two weeks to go, preparations for next month's Group of 20 summit in London are creating a contradictory impression. On the one hand, the Government has been at pains to dampen expectations – as well it might, given the speed at which the economic picture is changing and the limited impact of any measures taken by any government so far. On the other hand, ministers have not been averse to talking up what they say is at stake: nothing less than averting 1930s-style economic turmoil.
Of course, to warn how high the stakes are exerts pressure on participants to avoid failure. And, having lobbied so hard for London to host the April summit, Gordon Brown needs it to succeed. The question is what can reasonably be expected, and what will constitute success. Here, the British hosts seem to have aimed higher than was perhaps realistic or wise. They even postponed Budget Day. With the – presumed – support of the US, they are apparently hoping for a new, internationally-coordinated, stimulus package; in other words, some actual money. This would be in addition to one or more agreements to harmonise and toughen international financial regulations.
If anything of significance emerged from the finance ministers' meeting – and at this stage the gap between reality and spin can be very wide – it was that Germany and France, and perhaps others, are keener to talk about regulation than about money. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who met Mr Brown even as the finance ministers were in conclave, said, in typically down-to-earth fashion, that she wanted to see what effect Germany's big stimulus would have before authorising anything more.
Ms Merkel may be blamed abroad for lacking esprit de corps. But she is right to insist that good money is not sent after bad. Sound stewardship is quite different from the protectionism that British ministers, rightly, regard as the enemy. In less dramatic circumstances, an international commitment to more exacting financial regulation would have taken years to draft. While London might not be the world-saving summit Mr Brown envisaged, even modest progress in this direction is worth having.