The Chancellor lost his bottle

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The Independent Online

There can be few distinctions harder for a Chancellor to make than that between politician and leader. But sometimes the two conflict, and it is only then that the mettle is tested. On Wednesday Gordon Brown proved himself a supreme politician, but as a leader he failed. The Iron Chancellor turned out to have straw padding.

There can be few distinctions harder for a Chancellor to make than that between politician and leader. But sometimes the two conflict, and it is only then that the mettle is tested. On Wednesday Gordon Brown proved himself a supreme politician, but as a leader he failed. The Iron Chancellor turned out to have straw padding.

Politics first. By enabling himself to claim victory over the road hauliers, while proving that he was listening to their grievances with his bonanza for greener fuels, Mr Brown has surely wrapped up the next election for Labour. If there was ever doubt about next May's result, it was dissipated by the faces of Conservative MPs as they heard Mr Brown's war chest creaking open to dish the dosh. Determined not to make the same mistake as his predecessor Roy Jenkins, who was widely blamed for Labour's 1970 defeat for his unnecessary prudence, Mr Brown became the pensioners' pal and the motorists' mate. At a stroke, the two strongest cards in the Tory election strategy were nulled. While the Tories promised a 3p cut in fuel duty for unleaded petrol, Mr Brown gave 4p to users of the ultra-low sulphur petrol (Ulsp) which, by next year, will be widely available. Then, whereas the Tories plan to scrap the winter fuel allowance for pensioners, re-allocating the money for the state pension, Mr Brown boosted both. Put that in your tank, Portillo.

So, all credit to Mr Brown on the political side. But for a chancellor who has made it his trademark to resist the froth of day-to-day events, the pre-Budget report was a climbdown. This speech was a product of last-minute opinion polls, focus groups and arm-twisting. The wheeze on Ulsp, which Conservatives must be kicking themselves for not spotting, was Mr Brown's green get-out, but it was clear this was an attempt to take the heat from the fuel protests. As a small truck convoy lurches towards London amid widespread public apathy, it appears that, in this limited aim at least, Gordon has been successful. But any fuel, with or without sulphur, is bad for the environment. This was Mr Brown's opportunity to take on the blockaders and their sympathisers, and state once and for all the environmental case for fuel and vehicle taxes. Instead, with the outrageous words, "It is consistent with our environmental principle that we tax vehicle ownership less", Mr Brown flunked it.

It was always going to be harder to take on the richest pensioners, and he balked at that prospect, too. There's votes in them thar golf clubs. With the support of the Labour conference and the TUC for a reintroduction of the link between pensions and earnings, pensioners were assured of a windfall. But the Chancellor was wrong to focus so much of his cash on all pensioners, with a boost to the state pension and the winter fuel allowance, rather than targeting the poorest. Throughout his term, he has rightly focused help on the poorest pensioners, introducing the minimum income guarantee (MIG) alongside the state pension to ensure that those with the least receive the most help. But the price of those across-the-board rises is that the MIG will not reach £100 until 2003. That is far too slow. So, not Roy Jenkins 1970 vintage then. But with his wheeze-driven and voter-friendly measures, coupled with his failure to tell the country what it needed to hear, Mr Brown has left himself looking worryingly like Norman Lamont circa 1992.

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