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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 March 2006, 22:10 GMT
Brown plans cautious budget
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

There will be many notable things about Gordon Brown's budget on 22 March - although its content is unlikely to be one of them.

Chancellor Gordon Brown
Mr Brown has left himself room to move
It will be the Chancellor's 10th, it will be the first time he has faced David Cameron over the despatch box, and it may well be his last before his hoped-for entry into 10 Downing Street.

And, more than ever before, it will be analysed to extinction for signs of what a Brown premiership would mean for the country.

As for the content, however, the speculation is that the Chancellor will deliver a humdrum, don't-rock-the-boat package of measures.

His decision to change the timing of the economic cycle, so allowing himself time to meet his famous golden rule that he would only borrow to invest over the cycle, avoided one potential problem.

And his postponement last year of the 2006 spending review to 2007 has removed the need for him to announce anything dramatic on the level of forthcoming public spending.

War chest

The belief is that Mr Brown will want to tinker a bit, send out all the now traditional, reassuring signals about the future, and claim he has once again dismayed his critics who year after year have claimed he is on the brink of a crisis.

David Cameron
Cameron will face Brown for first time
However, the chancellor loves to pull rabbits out of hats on budget day and, if he really believes he will be running the country within a year or so of his announcement, he may well want to give his image a little pre-premiership boost.

So some sort of feelgood surprise cannot be entirely ruled out, even though no one expects this to be one of the chancellor's big budgets like previous public spending or tax rising statements.

And, of course, there may be signs of the Chancellor starting to build up a war chest to help him when the next general election looms and when he fully expects to be leading Labour into the fray.

Many also believe Mr Brown may use the statement to signal some future action over pensioners who have lost their company pensions, although a full announcement is unlikely to come before the full spending review.

I'd like a complete overhaul of the benefits system
Linda, Kirkcaldy

Meanwhile, Tory leader David Cameron's performance will also come under the microscope for indications of how he will handle a Brown prime minister.

Until now the Tory leader's approach has been to attempt to divide Labour by suggesting he supports Tony Blair's desire for public sector reforms while painting Mr Brown as a "roadblock" to reform.

That is a tactic he is expected to continue to follow and one Mr Brown will undoubtedly attempt to dismiss with talk of continuing reform under his premiership.

For his part, the chancellor is likely to attempt to portray Mr Cameron as an old-style public sector cutting Tory, with a new PR sheen.

It is expected, then, that this will be the budget in which Gordon Brown does nothing to scare the horses or derail his hopes of entering 10 Downing Street.


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