Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 15:54 UK

Martha Kearney's week

By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One


A wombat
Fur play: Looking after wombats could be an attractive option for Mr Darling
After a week like this, maybe Alistair Darling should take "wombat leave".

That's exactly what Australia's top Treasury official has done. Ken Hardy has headed off to a remote part of Northern Queensland to look after 115 hairy nosed wombats which are an even more endangered species than Labour MPs.

Just think of it, Chancellor. No mobile phone coverage. No pesky reports from the Bank of England saying that people won't be able to borrow for a mortgage.

No surveys saying that the service sector is in its worst state since September 11th 2001. No nasty reports reminding everyone about the chaotic handling of the Northern Rock crisis.

Pessimistic forecast

No lorry drivers hooting their horns at your window, demanding a freeze in fuel duty. Hmm, doesn't Northern Queensland sound tempting?

The economic news was dire this week with perhaps the biggest shock coming from Marks and Spencer.

Many ministers believe that there will be no recovery until the economy shows some signs of revival

The credit crunch hitting such a cosy High Street brand meant more to most people than the failure of other companies.

But we also saw the big building company Taylor Wimpey's shares losing half their value and other property developers too being hit.

I interviewed Sir Alan Sugar on Wednesday, the day he stood down as chairman of Amstrad.

'Dull times'

This was his view: "Unfortunately we're paying the toll for our American cousins who over-traded, and greedily some of our banks jumped in and wanted parts of that action and now we're paying for it I'm afraid."

He also had a pessimistic long term forecast: "There needs to be a general confidence to come back in to the marketplace before the economy is boosted. I think we're in for three or four years years' dull times until we see the markets turn."

Sir Alan Sugar and Lee McQueen
Sir Alan gave Martha chapter and verse on Lee's condition

That is clearly bad news politically for the Labour government. Many ministers believe that there will be no recovery until the economy shows some signs of revival.

There seems to be less talk about replacing Gordon Brown at the moment though if Ladbrokes are right and Labour is heading for a loss in the Glasgow East by-election that could change.

The mood of many in the party was summed up for me by Margaret Prosser, the former party treasurer who told me on Monday when I asked whether the party should get a new leader: "We have Gordon. He's well known. He's not exactly a sunbeam, but that's his style. I don't see who we're going to get who would be any better." Talk about faint praise!

Green taxes

With all of Labour's difficulties, there is inevitably a focus on what a Conservative government would do in power particularly on the economy.

On Thursday, I interviewed George Osborne and asked him about green taxes. He welcomed Gordon Brown's hints that the freeze on fuel duty would continue beyond the autumn and then used an interesting phrase that "the pain should be shared" when the price of oil was high.

I wondered if he meant he would introduce a regulator (an idea being mooted by the SNP) which means that the level of tax would fall as the price of oil rose.

Sir Alan Sugar and Lee McQueen
Sir Alan gave Martha chapter and verse on Lee's condition

He said they were looking at that. It's an interesting idea but one with difficult consequences for government revenues.

The Conservatives are also pledged to raise green taxes as a proportion of general taxation (to fund family tax cuts) but where will those taxes fall?

George Osborne said he was interested in the idea of a purchase tax on new cars which was recommended by the Conservative's Quality of Life policy commission.

That review by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith also proposed changes to Vehicle Excise Duty which are remarkably similar to the government plans which George Osborne denounced as an assault on motorists.

Green taxes certainly present policy dilemmas for the Conservatives. When David Cameron positioned the party as an environmental one, the price of oil was far lower than its record high this week. Mondeo Man may be rather less inclined to pay more tax now.

If all this economic gloom is getting you down, there is someone who has had a worse week - Lee McQueen, the winner of The Apprentice who rang in sick on his first day in the new job.

Sir Alan Sugar told me: "What a shame for the poor fellow, he got a virus when he was in Spain. He's flat on his back and he's sick as a parrot, not just because he's sick but he's sick that he can't come in. He's phoning me every 10 minutes giving me chapter and verse on how many times he has visited the loo."

At that point I brought the interview to a close.




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