Leading Article: A budget to shake our faith in the Government's ambitions

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In a damp month, a soggy squib. What is the point of an exercise that calls itself consultative, then announces accomplished policy facts; that promises great change, only to admit that the detail has not been worked out and can't be revealed till the day after tomorrow?

Here was a stunning chance to educate the nation in fiscal business and the long game plan, and it was missed. Gordon Brown did not even fly a kite - for example, give some sign, however tattered, that he is thinking about mortgage tax relief, that he has come anywhere near the crux decisions needed if pensions are to be reformed in a lasting and enduring way.

Let's repeat that word, reform; it's got nothing to do with Wilsonian gestures on winter fuel relief for the old, welcome though they unquestionably are. We do not need Gordon Brown playing Santa Claus. We need him to put this government's astonishing power and prestige behind a scheme that will ensure that 20, 30, 40 years down the road, there is no longer a case for this kind of bail-out.

Here, yet again, was the Blair government having it every which way, and no particular way at all. Grand spinning, and much harping on the radical theme, when in the event all the Chancellor did was top and tail announcements he made in July. Telling us we are to have a National Minimum Wage was, to put it bluntly, a waste of space: we read that in the party manifesto and have been standing by ever since. Waiting. The country, and this paper, continue to have great faith in the Government's ambitions. But there is considerable unease among voters about its capacity to realise those ambitions.

This begins to look like a government that won't plump. What else is power for? To say that integrating taxes and benefits is difficult, is elementary. A shelf full of studies and analyses tell how it could take place and at what cost. Mr Brown - his aides and civil servants - ought to have read them long ago. Now we should move forward.

But in which direction? As a parliamentary performance, yesterday's statement was first rate; concise and assured. We are getting used to that. As a message about New Labour ideology, it shambled. Take Mr Brown's serial use of the word "responsibility". What does it mean? In fact, what on earth was that long peroration about pay restraint really for? This is a capitalist society where, surely, government can ask for restraint only if it can convince us that it is a moral enterprise, dedicated to increasing social justice. Where, then, were the Government's proposals for making taxation fairer, for stripping from home owners their unfair subsidy, for taxing inheritance?

It didn't help that officialdom chose yesterday to announce the gift of a superior gong to the original fat cat, Sir Denis Rooke of British Gas. Sir Denis may be an accomplished gas engineer; he has also gained mightily from doing nothing other than still being at the helm when privatisation took place. All the talk of moderation, of responsibility from the boardroom downwards - and here is another example of the proverbial difference between the law for the rich and that for the poor.

Labour may argue that its policies - including co-operation with business - have a core purpose: to maximise employment. Let's be generous, and agree that the Government is sincere in wanting to create conditions in which job opportunities expand. Even more, let's agree that it is a fundamental and decent objective, more attainable than the tiresome Tory defeatists can yet bring themselves to admit. The Government is convinced that work is the key to social, as well as economic, emancipation, and who can gainsay that view?

Fair enough. But here lies real complexity. The easy thing to do (decent enough, but easy) is to shell out some money to allow elderly people to be warmer this winter. Done that. We approve. Who wouldn't? Labour backbenchers approve. Are you surprised? Is this what it's all about? By no means. The question - unasked yesterday, let alone answered - is how Labour intends to make the tax and benefit system fairer and more effective. Instead we had a mildly fatuous exhortation to employers to hold back on pay - their own, and their employees'. Bluntly, Gordon, it's up to them to decide what they need to pay people in order to retain them, motivate them and deliver growth; you don't really have much to do with it. In fact, when did you ever have to negotiate several hundred individual salaries? No: your job is the public finances, and we are not that much wiser this morning on the subject than we were yesterday.

This government's fate seems to be to spin an exciting line about what it's about to do, and then fall just a bit short of the billing. It's not clever. And people are less and less convinced by it.

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