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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 March, 2005, 23:35 GMT
Brown focuses on the big picture

By Andrew Marr
BBC News political editor

Gordon Brown's ninth budget speech did not sound like a swansong.

It was not a defiant history of his achievements, ramming home to Labour MPs the difference between his vision and Tony Blair's.

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown is 'back in fashion' with key cabinet members

It was not the challenging manifesto for a future Prime Minister Brown, sprawling across the whole territory of domestic policy, either.

Given the dramatic surroundings - the coming election, the bitter briefings about his role, or lack of it, in Labour's election team - a theatrical, personalised Budget speech was on the cards.

Instead, the chancellor acted as if his immediate surroundings, including his own position and the election campaign, were secondary issues.

The big picture

He expended most of his rhetorical energy on the big picture, the long term issues of regulation, competitiveness, refurbishing schools and investing more in science and skills.

Yes, inevitably, he had succour for Labour MPs in marginal seats, carefully depositing modest pots of honey among key groups - pensioners, struggling families wanting to buy a home, small business people who have been going quietly nuts about over-regulation.

The political battle is to establish whether it is being well spent, or squandered on ineffective bureaucracy
Andrew Marr

It would have been personal political suicide not to do so. But this was about as far away from a pre-election splurge as one could imagine.

Which does not mean it was apolitical. It is simply that for Labour generally, and for Gordon Brown in particular, the key challenge is to retain trust and answer the Tory accusation - vote now, pay later.

Too many independent observers think the Treasury has a black hole in its books for the Labour campaign to quite ignore the subject.

When Opposition politicians, Liberal Democrats as well as Conservatives, warn that big tax rises will follow any Labour victory, they find an attentive audience in the country.

It is, therefore, more important for Mr Brown to sound cautious, serious and long-termist.

Money spent

The money, after all, has been spent. One of the reasons that things are tight just now is the huge spending unleashed on the National Health Service earlier in this Parliament.

It cannot be clawed back now - the political battle is to establish whether it is being well spent, or squandered on ineffective bureaucracy.

Tories and Liberal Democrats want to talk about waste, and value for money: Labour wants to talk about the strength of the economy.

Where does all of this leave Mr Brown himself? He is in an intriguing position.

This Budget amounts to a clever, tactical series of moves half way through a chess game. But all the big pieces are still on the board and the outcome is genuinely open

Key members of the cabinet, as well as many backbenchers are currently "buying Brown" because they sense that Tony Blair is not so long for Number 10.

They do not expect a landslide on the scale of 1997 or 2001.

When they contemplate the early moves in the campaign, they do not think there is another four years' worth of policy waiting in Number 10: the prime minister would like to win his European referendum and will then start to look to a future outside politics.

Back in fashion

The smaller Labour's majority, the shorter Mr Blair's third spell in Downing Street. And so, with bland predictability, Mr Brown finds himself fashionable again. None of the other contenders looks very likely just now.

The problem is that while a Labour majority of, say, 60 or 70 might hasten the Brown premiership, he has to campaign ferociously for as big a win as possible.

He does not want to preside over a lame-duck, fag-end Labour administration; and anyway, no senior politician can engage in an election campaign with anything less than every sinew and breath... Not unless they are prepared to lose.

This Budget amounts to a clever, tactical series of moves half way through a chess game. But all the big pieces are still on the board and the outcome is genuinely open.



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