Monday, December 11, 2006

Podcast - Brown yet to reveal his hand

Script for Paul Linford's Week in Politics, Episode 47, December 11 2006.

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Over the years, as Gordon Brown has built himself up from a promising young Labour politician into a Prime Minister in waiting, we have become accustomed to seeing him pull rabbits out of hats.

The Chancellor is a past master in the art of conjuring up last-minute surprises that wrong-foot the opposition and leave his own side cheering.

In his Budget statements, he’s done it with the 10p starting rate of tax, direct payments to schools, and winter fuel payments for pensioners among other things.

Most memorably, perhaps, he did it on his fourth day in the job by announcing Bank of England independence, the single most important and far-reaching reform of his Chancellorship.

But if the aim of Mr Brown’s Budget and pre-Budget statements has normally been to procure a headline-grabbing announcement that seizes the political initiative, Wednesday’s pre-Budget report was different.

The Chancellor was under no pressure to produce a big surprise. He has moreorless cemented his position as the next Prime Minister, and only a political earthquake can now deprive him of it.

Far from producing a rabbit from the hat, the aim was to keep the rabbit firmly inside it – ready for the day when Brown finally moves next door to No 10.

So Wednesday’s statement was by and large a steady-as-she-goes package, with a few token announcements thrown in to keep the media wolves at bay.

One change that certainly falls into this category was the decision to double air tax to £10, no more than a cursory nod to the green lobby that will do little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

Potentially more significant was the extra £8.3bn for education, posing a difficult challenge for the Tories who have pledged to split the proceeds of future growth between new spending and tax cuts.

Likewise, the extension of child benefit payments to women in the later stages of pregnancy is a populist move set to come on stream just before the next election is due.

But these are mere hors d’oeuvres. The real meat will come next summer, once Mr Brown can unleash his own agenda without fear of it being purloined by Tony Blair or, worse, David Cameron.

The question on the lips of many Labour MPs at the moment is what the first 100 days of the Brown premiership are going to look like, but there are already plenty of clues.

We know, for instance, that Mr Brown is eager to complete the unfinished business of Mr Blair’s constitutional reforms, moving to an elected Lords and maybe even a fresh look at proportional representation.

There are also strong rumours that he has also decided to make major changes to the machinery of government, including the dismantling of his existing department.

The Department of Trade and Industry may be abolished and folded into the Treasury, which could itself then be demerged into a finance department and a ministry of economics and trade.

But I would anticipate something much more eye-catching as Mr Brown’s “Big Bang” announcement to define the start of his premiership and draw a line under the Blair years.

Here’s my prediction, for what it’s worth. He will repeat the trick he pulled with Bank of England independence – but this time with the National Health Service.

Mr Brown will remove the NHS from political control, establishing it as a standalone BBC-style trust at arms length from government and enshrining it as free at the point of delivery.

Although it will mean having to give up a certain degree of power, it will put the NHS permanently beyond the reach of Tory privatisers and cement Mr Brown’s long-term legacy.

In previous podcasts, I have also predicted that Prime Minister Brown would seek,
in some way, to draw a line under the Iraq War, perhaps by beginning a phased withdrawal of British troops.

As it has turned out, events have moved faster, and it is now entirely possible that such a withdrawal could commence under Mr Blair.

This week’s critical report by the Iraq Study Group, coupled with the admission of the new Secretary for Defence that the US is losing the war, shows how quickly the ground has shifted.

Mr Blair was himself forced to concede yesterday that a new approach is needed, thereby absolving his successor of the need to do so.

Either way, one thing of which I am very certain about Mr Brown’s first 100 days is that there will be plenty for people like me to write about.

Some even argue – though I don’t necessarily agree – that he will call a General Election, to secure his own mandate independent of Mr Blair and cut off the Tory revival in its tracks.

In the meantime, we will have to be patient, as Mr Blair tries to string out his premiership in the increasingly vain hope that something will come along that will enable him to leave on a high note.

It is hard to see what he has left to do, other than to achieve the milestone of ten years in office and, perhaps, to see off the “cash-for-honours” inquiry.

For now, British politics has entered a bizarre state of limbo, with Blair in office but not in power and Brown in power but not in office.

It’s Brown who is the man with the plan – but it’s the plan for his first few months as Premier, not his last few months as Chancellor, and the name of the game this week was to give as little of it away as possible.

To put it another way, we are now in a situation in which Mr Blair has almost no cards left to play, while Mr Brown is still playing his very close to his chest.

Until he is ready to put those cards on the table, all we can do is simply watch, and wait.

1 comment:

Toque said...

I'm not sure about proportional representation. There is an argument that a system of proportional representation would limit the potential for crisis point to be reached over the West Lothian Question (it would be less likely to be a party-political issue do to the fairer distribution of seats).

But is Brown prepared to limit the voting power behind his government to achieve that? I don't think so.

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