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banner Friday, 14 July, 2000, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
Brown aids Blair's fightback

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

When Gordon Brown gets to his feet on Tuesday to announce the government's future spending plans, his statement is intended to cap New Labour's fightback after a dreadful period.

The chancellor is widely expected to loosen his purse strings and earmark significant amounts of money - up to 43bn according to some reports - for investment in public services, transport and law and order.

The announcement will be followed later in the week by more detailed statements from other ministers, with John Prescott and transport top of the pile.

The aim of the exercise is to ensure that, in the run-up to the Commons' summer recess at the end of the month, Labour has a firm grip on the political agenda.

It is what the prime minister has been devoting virtually all of his time to in the last few days, and the chancellor is expected to round it all off with a "prudent giveaway", if that isn't a contradiction in terms.

It all started with Wednesday's hastily-arranged news conference in which Mr Blair attempted to regain ground after his worst period in office so far - culminating with his fumbling question time performance the week before.

He followed it through with a confident and robust performance against William Hague later the same day.

And just 24 hours later he was again leading from the front in the Commons by personally unveiling the government's annual report and then challenging Mr Hague head-on in an opposition debate.

This Tuesday should see the big one with the announcement of the spending plans.

Big surprise

In other words, with the days before the recess dominated by set-piece events, it is hoped the opposition will not be able to get a look in and Labour MPs will be sent off to the seaside with a big smile on their faces and looking forward to the next general election campaign - which is already unofficially well underway.

The chancellor's challenge on Tuesday is to deliver spending plans that will not risk undermining the strength in the economy while, at the same time, appealing to both Labour's heartland voters and the much-needed middle England.

There is any amount of speculation about what will be in the package, but it seems certain there will be more cash for "heartland" issues like education, health and transport.

And, knowing the chancellor's habits, it is highly likely there will be at least one big surprise.

The danger for Mr Blair in all this, however, is that it may look like it is the chancellor - and would-be Labour leader - who has salvaged the government and put it on the path to a second election victory.

Mr Blair's trick, therefore, is to ensure that he is seen to be taking a leading role in crafting the chancellor's comprehensive spending review package without appearing to hijack Mr Brown's big day.

Tories undermined

He started that process last Wednesday in his "substance-not-spin" press conference during which he announced what the CSR was going to be all about.

"Good economic management is not enough, falling unemployment is not enough. We now need to take the next stage - to tackle the problem of poor productivity and lack of essential investment in the nation's future.

"So the CSR will not be just about spending, it will be about raising the productive capacity of the British economy."

The message has been underpinned in briefings which have had the single aim of letting it be known that the prime minister has been driving the CSR.

Meanwhile, the Tories - after a few hugely successful weeks which have seen them controlling the agenda - have been undermined by Mr Hague's u-turn on his tax guarantee and his later announcement that he will not necessarily stick to the government's public spending plans.

The effect of all this has been to narrow down the election battleground which, apart from Europe, is now likely to once again be dominated by arguments over who will tax most and who will spend most.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair promises spending rise
13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Leaders battle over Parliament
12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair denies 'annus horribilis'
11 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Hague under fire for tax backtrack
12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair moves back to substance
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