Two cheers for big spender Brown

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Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) was intended to be the centrepiece of Labour's pre-election campaign. The three-year spending proposals were designed both to provide evidence that the Government knows where it is going, and at the same time to wrongfoot the Opposition - enabling Labour to challenge the Conservatives to name the cuts they must make to fulfil their inane "tax guarantee".

Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) was intended to be the centrepiece of Labour's pre-election campaign. The three-year spending proposals were designed both to provide evidence that the Government knows where it is going, and at the same time to wrongfoot the Opposition - enabling Labour to challenge the Conservatives to name the cuts they must make to fulfil their inane "tax guarantee".

That it was something of a damp squib can be put down to three reasons. First, the rows over spin and leaks diverted attention from the Chancellor's big moment. Then, too much had been trailed in advance for there to be many surprises. Most significantly, Michael Portillo's watering-down of the tax guarantee ensured that the Tories were not caught as financially short as they might have been.

As expected, the big recipients of Mr Brown's largesse were health, education, transport and defence. But for a man who has consistently talked of "hard choices" in public spending - suggesting that services will gain only if they make uncomfortable compromises - the Chancellor seems to have squeezed too few quos for his billions of quids.

On transport, John Prescott's 10-year plan includes vital investment - but it is a truly missed opportunity. In return for increased funding of 75 per cent, Mr Brown really could have tightened the screws. Mr Prescott - the man who in 1997 said "I will have failed if in five years' time there are not far fewer journeys by car" - has ruled out motorway tolls for a decade, as car numbers relentlessly rise. For a government obsessed with targets, it was a tragedy that none was set for reducing the use of cars. Meanwhile 100 new bypasses will rip the countryside apart.

On defence, Mr Brown was right to put money into restructuring the armed forces to better suit their new role as world policemen. There is no use sending troops to Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor with faulty equipment. But with so many guns, ships and tanks that don't work properly, a wholesale reform of arms procurement should also have been driven through by the Treasury beancounters.

The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, did spectacularly well from the CSR. And rightly so. For people to believe that "education, education, education" is truly the Government's top priority, cash needed to be given for schools, universities and teachers. But, again, not enough was demanded in return. With Mr Blunkett's plans for performance-related pay delayed by the courts for at least a year, the Chancellor should have insisted, particularly after his Laura Spence outburst, that universities should suffer financial penalties if they fail to become less exclusive. It was also an opportune - missed - moment to signal an end to the charitable status of public schools.

The £13bn injection into the health service had already been announced, though we must wait until next week to hear where it will go. But in the week when yet another doctor, the gynaecologist Richard Neale, has been found guilty of a series of botched operations, doctors, if they are to receive a deserved pay rise, should accept in return regular revalidation of their skills.

So, disappointing in parts it may be, but the CSR offers - at last - real hopes for improved public services under Labour. Some opportunities taken, others missed. We now wait to see which parts of Mr Brown's war chest the Tories would plan to claw back for Michael Portillo's tax cuts.

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