Mr Brown has launched a pre-emptive strike against his political enemies

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If anyone still harboured any doubts at all about the Government's preferred timing of the next general election, the pre-Budget report delivered yesterday by the Chancellor must surely have allayed them. This was not just a pre-Budget report. It was a pre-election report, cast in such a way as to exude confidence and stability, to anticipate Tory attacks and to offer balm to some especially troubled constituencies.

If anyone still harboured any doubts at all about the Government's preferred timing of the next general election, the pre-Budget report delivered yesterday by the Chancellor must surely have allayed them. This was not just a pre-Budget report. It was a pre-election report, cast in such a way as to exude confidence and stability, to anticipate Tory attacks and to offer balm to some especially troubled constituencies.

Mr Brown boasted of "the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the industrial history of our country", and promised to extend it. He cited figures to show that growth this year would fall plum in the middle of his earlier projections, as would the rate of inflation. He denied absolutely charges that Britain was over-borrowing or would miss any of its fiscal targets. He insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that the Government was tackling waste. And - to the fury of the trade unions - he committed himself to cut Civil Service numbers and have a total of 20,000 civil servants' jobs moved out of London by 2010.

On the spending side, there was a little something for a great many groups, starting with those old favourites: the "hard-working families". Longer paid maternity leave transferable between partners, more subsidies for child care, more money for the child trust funds that Mr Brown announced this time last year, more pre-school education, schools open from 8am to 6pm to help full-time working parents. All these measures have the appearance of being gender-neutral. In reality, this is the Government's way of trying to woo back those many women voters it fears it has lost over the war in Iraq.

There are promises to cut red tape and to simplify tax for small business, a very modest incentive for savers, increases in winter fuel allowances for older pensioners and more support for local council budgets in an effort to reduce the blame that would inevitably attach to the Government if council tax rose substantially yet again just before the election. Car-owners and country dwellers will benefit from a freeze in vehicle excise duty and petrol tax. For those tempted to defect to the Lib Dems or the Greens, Mr Brown offered Britain's pledge to make climate change the theme of our 2005 G8 presidency and a development fund to foster energy-efficient innovation.

But this was much more than even a pre-election pre-Budget report, promising many small baubles in the future - and nothing too ambitious, too costly or too immediate. It also amounted to a comprehensive defence by Gordon Brown of his personal economic and political record. If there is such a thing as pre-emptive defence, this was it. Mr Brown took on every charge that has been recently levelled against him and anticipated a good many more.

Contrary to many critics, before - and after - his speech, he insisted that he was in no danger whatsoever of breaking his "golden rule" on borrowing. He lashed out against his arch-enemy, Peter Mandelson, who had warned him not to "gloat" about Britain's superior economic performance compared with other EU countries. In his repeated comparisons between Britain and other countries, he also included the United States. The unspoken message was that he was less anti-European than proudly British.

This was a bullish, personal manifesto lauding his own and Britain's economic achievements, placing Britain firmly at the heart of a global Europe, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground. No mention, of course, about his golden inheritance seven years ago, nor about the gap that many believe is already opening up between revenue and spending. Nor even of the tremors in the housing market. Instead, the image presented was of safe, dependable, politically astute Gordon Brown, in tune with grassroots Britain and its day-to-day concerns, sensitive to the needs of business - large and small - and averse to spending large sums of money that are not his to spend. At least until after the election.

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