Leading article: Not such a bad week

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair and his colleagues have spent the week grappling with the unglamorous, intractable problems of government, proving that even administrations with landslide majorities can't have the icing without the cake. A rebellion by more than 100 Labour MPs over Harriet Harman's cuts in lone-parents' benefit suggested that the Old Labour Adam is not extinct. The DTI was caught red-handed preparing its excuses for having to perform the last rites on the deep-mined coal industry. And many party activists must have winced when they read headlines saying that public schools are safe with Labour. It is tempting to caricature these upsets as the consequences of Labour's neglect of its roots and natural instincts. We shall resist that.

The Government has made some serious mistakes since coming to power, notably in the Ecclestone affair. But the hard choices that now bedevil it are of a different order. Hard choices can cause bad bruises, but the Government is none the less right to resist the backbench rebellion on the reduction of single- parents' benefit. There is a decent argument for not enforcing a cut that had been condemned as mean while the party was in opposition, but once the Chancellor decided that his reputation for fiscal responsibility would depend on his sticking to Kenneth Clarke's spending plans, the case for a retreat became unsustainable. If ministers buckled before the first volley of grapeshot from the back benches, it would blow away the Government's hard-won reputation for toughness on public spending.

The coal saga is not as simple as it looks either. The problem is real enough, but this is a Europe-wide predicament. Although Britain still produces the cheapest coal in the European Union, it can be imported from other parts of the world at less than the cost of production here. Moreover coal is dirty and gas is clean; and to be blackmailed by RJB Mining into subsidising the coal industry is to fly in the face of environmental and economic reality. But there is, even so, a case for forcing the power generators to increase coal stocks from their extremely low current levels, and for persuading them to continue to burn some British coal. (In the same way that the regulator persuades the water companies to reduce leakages.) If Britain has no coal industry at all, there is nothing left to revive if the cost structure of the energy industry alters radically once again - as it might.

Stephen Byers' announcement that children might move between the public and state school systems is an imaginative way of starting to confront the simple fact that, since the abolition of grammar schools, the private sector has grown and prospered because its pupils do so much better in exams than children in state schools. The former Tory MP George Walden has suggested the gradual reintegration of some of the best former direct grant schools back into the state sector. This would involve state subsidies for bright but poor children, but the cost would be small and immensely worthwhile. Nothing would do more to end the apartheid between state and private sectors and, with it, a central element of the British class system. By piloting a plan whereby state schoolchildren could take A-levels at independent schools such as Manchester Grammar School, Mr Byers has taken a modest but welcome first step in that direction.

But what counted most last week was economic policy. By coming down in favour of a truly national minimum wage, without the wide powers of variation that had been sought by Peter Mandelson, the Government has shown that, when it chooses, it is prepared to be tough on employers in the interests of social justice. But Gordon Brown's Green Budget is the most welcome item of the week's news. There are tentative grounds for thinking that Mr Brown could become one of the great reforming chancellors of the post- war years. Having handed over control of monetary policy to the Bank of England, he has now promised to give statutory force to his commitment to keep the ratio of public debt to GDP at a prudent level over the economic cycle, and borrow, over the same cycle, no more than is needed for investment. This is a conspicuous step towards the fiscal stability that has eluded governments in the past. And by formally floating tax proposals - like the planned 10 per cent starting rate for income tax and the unearned tax credit - Mr Brown has fulfilled his eminently sensible promise to allow debate in the five months running up to the Budget itself. Come to think of it, the Government, all in all, has had rather a good week.