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Wednesday, 14 February, 2001, 17:45 GMT
Brown's biggest budget test
Chancellor Gordon Brown
Labour hopes Brown will deliver election winner
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Chancellor Gordon Brown already has a formidable reputation as the most effective minister in the cabinet - but his budget on 7 March will be his greatest test to date.

This is the day Mr Brown will be aiming to win New Labour's second term in office with a respectable, three figure, majority.

Virtually everyone at Westminster expects the election to come on 3 May - although the latest speculation insists it will be some time in April.

And there is a great argument raging over the competing dates.

Those backing 3 May point out that it coincides with local council elections, in which Labour is expected to do badly, and also means the government will have served four years so cannot be accused of "cutting and running".

Others, however, are pressing for an earlier poll on the basis that "things can only get worse" for the government.

Decent majority

It certainly seems the case, according to opinion polls, that the government is still so popular, and the Tories so unpopular, that it would take an earth-shattering event to deny it a second term.

Shamed minister Peter Mandelson
Mandelson affair rocked Blair
But Mr Blair has already suffered a few unforeseen, earth shattering events - such as the Mandelson affair, fuel protests and widespread transport chaos - and he knows better than most how the unexpected can suddenly overwhelm him.

So he is probably eager to get the election out of the way as soon as is respectable and, equally importantly, he wants a decent majority.

Anything less than a three figure lead would spark talk about leadership challenges with, ironically, Gordon Brown's name firmly in the frame as the next leader.

Dangerous rival

For Tony Blair, therefore, winning will not be enough. He needs to win convincingly.

And like all prime ministers, he is not about to waste the opportunity of a pre-election budget to boost his chances of such a victory.

So on Wednesday 7 March, he will look to his most dangerous rival to deliver the budget of his career.

This presents Mr Brown with a stiff challenge.

On the one hand he will want to offer traditional pre-election tax cuts and increased public spending - and he certainly has the cash for that.

But he will also want to maintain his image as one of the most prudent and cautious post-war Chancellors and the natural leader-in-waiting.

And it is these tensions that will make Budget 2001 one of the most fascinating for decades.

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See also:

14 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Brown sets Budget day
29 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Brown signals aid for blackspots
27 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Brown points to targeted tax cuts
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