High stakes for gambler Brown

Last updated at 10:34 13 July 2004

As usual, the performance was masterly: razzle and dazzle, statistics pouring forth in a machine-gun rattle, and buckets of brio. This was a Chancellor in total command of his brief.

Nobody watching Gordon Brown yesterday could be in any doubt over who calls the shots in this Government.

Here by turn was a man presenting himself as a guardian of prudence, a provider of more schools and hospitals, a scourge of civil service waste, a builder of more affordable housing, a protector keeping the nation safe from enemies and a philanthropist rescuing the world's poor.

Hardly a nook or cranny in Britain escapes his attention. He even offers more nursery places to two-year-olds, though the Government was worrying only last week that sending very young children to nurseries leads to anti-social behaviour.

Indeed, such is his dominance that a visiting Martian might wonder what the rest of the Cabinet do all day. Even Mr Blair seemed reduced to irrelevance.

And of course there wasn't a hint in the Chancellor's performance of the great psychodrama on his own front bench over the leadership. Why did Ministers beg Mr Blair not to resign? Is Cherie determined to block Mr Brown's hopes? Are the Blairites trying to cut him down to size?

Instead he taunted the Tories for wanting to freeze budgets in areas where he is spending more, such as defence. Labour MPs just loved it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brown says he can pay for it all by cuts in the national debt, unemployment and bureaucracy.

But there's the rub. Can it be done? Mr Brown has a remarkable record of proving critics wrong. That said, he is taking massive gambles - even though his spending spree tails off markedly by 2008.

His first gamble is that the economy will continue to grow. Even if it does, many experts believe he will have to put up taxes or borrow even more after the election.

And if the economy hits a rough patch? Then the double whammy of higher taxes and interest rates will become a certainty.

His second gamble is arguably even riskier. His plans to slash 104,000 civil service jobs, saving £21 billion - while also selling off Government assets - run counter to every Labour instinct, not to mention the Whitehall mind-set and the public sector culture that is so evident in the deeply questionable positions advertised every week in the Guardian.

After all, isn't this the Government that increased the public payroll by more than half a million, so that it is now larger than Scotland's population? Won't the Chancellor's ever-growing list of targets mean more bureaucracy, rather than less?

Which brings us to his third gamble: can the cash cascading into unreformed public services provide value for money? Improvements in the NHS don't yet reflect the extra billions spent. And one in four children still leaves primary school unable to read or write properly.

This goes beyond the issue of waste. By micro-managing everything (for example through more nurseries to encourage mothers to work) the Government risks damaging children's interests, as we saw last week, and encourages dependency on an ever-bigger state that controls more and more aspects of British life.

One day a price will be paid for all this. Yet this is not a Chancellor to be underestimated. His record is outstanding. He stands head and shoulders above all his colleagues, including the Prime Minister.

Time will tell whether Mr Brown's gambles come off. For now, he can fairly claim to have confirmed his reputation as this Government's greatest asset - this when Mr Blair faces such potential damage to his own reputation in tomorrow's Butler report.

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