Thursday, March 22, 2007

Taking the wind from the Tories sails

Simon Heffer - one of the better commentators around today - gets it right about Brown's last budget with his piece on today's Telegraph website.

[I]f only the Tories could bear to take such an approach to the smoking ruins of their policy (if you can dignify it with the term) of resisting tax cuts while extolling the virtues of high public spending. It crashed spectacularly, and at a velocity nearer the speed of light than of sound, at about 1.15pm yesterday, when Gordon Brown announced he was cutting tuppence off income tax. The response, off-the-record but from a very senior Conservative indeed, was unequivocal. There will be no change of policy. The drawing board will gather dust, and the hole will continue to smoulder.

As Heffer points out, Brown snatches back far more than he gives away - that's to be expected from modern budgets and the Tories themselves are suggesting something along similar lines anyway - so any Tory jeering on that score is just going to sound like sour grapes on their part. The point it is that Brown has grabbed the headlines by announcing the cut in income tax and has also reduced any scope the Tories had of committing to tax cuts. If they had made a commitment to reducing the base rate themselves, then they could quite rightly have accused the Chancellor of stealing their ideas. Instead they are reduced to huffing and puffing.

What this demonstrates all too clearly is the political naivety of Cameron and Osborne. They thought they were being clever by avoiding making explicit commitments to tax cuts, but all they were really doing was leaving an open goal for Brown to kick the ball into. Heffer points out that it's not as if there wasn't any scope for the Tories to promise tax cuts. With public spending at almost £700 billion per year even a modest 1% reduction in that spending would be enough to commit to a 2p reduction in income tax. That scope has now been significantly reduced.

I don't like Brown or Blair and this budget is clearly Brown's attempt to improve his popularity as the potential next PM - with an eye on the 2009 election - but they are both far more skilled and experienced politicians than their opposition counterparts. Cameron and Osborne were feted as the "dream team". It turns out they're more of a "in a dream team".

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