Has Gordon Brown accidentally scuppered his electoral strategy?
His budget, in policy terms, was mostly unremarkable. Not one of his better efforts but still passable, I’d say. His speech, and the reaction to it, are quite something else.
At first, David Cameron was wrong-footed. The final tax-cutting flourish made perhaps the hardest job in parliament – the instant budget response – that much harder. And Cameron’s immediate line of attack involved an unnecessary misconception. Brown had clearly said that it was “not the time for a fiscal loosening” and that the budget would be “broadly neutral for the public finances”, which should have alerted the Tories that any cuts would be more or less offset with rises.
But taking a more considered look at the politics of it, there seems to be quite a pundits’ consensus – from Polly Toynbee to Bruce Anderson to Mary Ann Sieghart to Michael Portillo – that Brown has inadvertently legitimated the case for lower taxes.
At the last couple of elections, it’s argued, Labour have very effectively thwarted the Tories by presenting even the faintest whiff of a tax-cut promise as a threat to public services. But now that Brown has endorsed lower taxes, he’ll no longer be able to trap the Tories in the same deadly way.
The other common criticism of Brown’s politics is that by making such a show of one tax cut and downplaying (although not concealing) some equivalent tax rises – which were very quickly identified by observers such as the BBC’s Evan Davis and Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems – he has made himself look like a spinner. You could write the Tory script in your sleep: he talks the talk but keeps taxing us by stealth.
Indeed, a couple of polls over the weekend found more people thinking they’d be worse off than better off as a result of the budget.
So, he’s stuffed himself on two counts, right?
I’m not so sure. The final flourish was a miscalculation, I’d say (although the Sun loved it). But these two criticisms of it are interesting in that they’re both very tempting for his opponents, and yet they won’t both work.
If Brown has become a tax-cutter, then he can no longer paint Tory suggestions of tax cuts as a threat to schools’n’hospitals. If he’s just a con man, though, then he hasn’t become a tax-cutter.
The second line of attack would be entirely in keeping with the sustained character assassination that the Tories been pursuing over the last year. But it does make them look like the nasty party once again. The first line of attack, though, would help in the longer term to calm people’s fears about their “sharing the proceeds of growth” economic strategy.
Cameron tried to have it both ways in his immediate response, and he can be forgiven for not having settled on a clear position. But even now, the Tory document [PDF] on their website responding to the budget still vacillates. It leads with the “tax con” line, but goes on to argue that Brown has now swallowed their overall approach to tax and spending.
Brown has exposed two potential weaknesses, and it’s not clear which one the Tories should most profitably attack. But they have to choose whether they want to do him down personally or to build political space for their own policy agenda.
One final thought: it may well be that Brown has judged that the ‘beware Tory cuts’ line has more or less run its course electorally, with people feeling more over-taxed than in the past, and with Cameron clamping down on tax-cut promises. In which case, Brown presumably plans to campaign against the Tories on other grounds entirely.
Things are getting interesting.