Philip Stephens: Tilting at toffs is a Scot’s sport

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

So Nicholas Vansittart had been the last chancellor to deliver 10 consecutive Budgets, rising to the House of Commons despatch box a few years after the Napoleonic wars. When Gordon Brown began his 10th Budget speech by offering this intriguing testimony to his own longevity in office, I took it as something of a boast. As time passed, it seemed more of a lament.

The economics of the Budget consisted of the chancellor’s tributes to his own record. It is a good one and Mr Brown will never let us forget it. He had, however, announced his tax increases in November and most of the big spending decisions await the outcome of a comprehensive review of Whitehall budgets. So, in the economic jargon, it was a neutral package.

Instead, the Budget connected two sets of politics. After the media-driven cash-for-peerages hysteria of the past week, the first was about how much longer the ever-impatient Mr Brown must wait before Tony Blair stands down. David Cameron put the question directly to Mr Blair during prime minister’s questions. He did not get an entirely straight answer. Mr Blair’s body language, though, still says he is no hurry to leave.

The chancellor’s demeanour presumes otherwise. He presented the Budget as a preview of his coming political duel with Mr Cameron. Mr Brown, as ever, wielded a sledgehammer. Few politicians have had such a dominant presence in the Commons. Mr Cameron, like Mr Blair, is a graduate of the thespian school of politics. He prefers the rhetorical rapier. The chancellor, he shouted, was an “analogue politician in a digital age”. It was not a bad line from a Tory leader who wants to cast the contest as one between the past and the future. But on this occasion, it must be said, brute force prevailed.

As ever, Mr Brown drew big political dividing lines. Those have not changed much in 10 Budgets: Labour invests, the Tories cut. The chancellor eschews subtlety in these matters. He would use the fruits of economic growth to invest in the nation’s future while Mr Cameron would sacrifice the public realm to tax cuts for the rich. The many versus the few.

The chosen battlefield is to be education. More specifically, Mr Brown said he wants children at state schools to share the opportunities now reserved for those cosseted in the privileged academies of the private sector. There was no need to spell out that Mr Cameron was at Eton.

I am not at all sure the politics of class warfare have much resonance any longer beyond a fast-shrinking Labour tribe. The middle classes of middle England do not judge their politicians by their schooling. Tilting at toffs is much more a Scottish than English political sport. It does, though, cheer those of Mr Brown’s parliamentary colleagues who want to force Mr Blair, another public schoolboy, from 10 Downing Street.

The argument over spending is anyway a lot more complicated. Mr Cameron is not suggesting that Whitehall budgets should be cut; rather they should grow less fast than the economy as a whole. To complicate matters further, Mr Brown himself has predicted an abrupt slowing in the growth rate of overall spending. The squeezes on the home office and some other departments announced in the Budget foreshadow the shift from feast to famine.

The philosophical divide, however, runs deeper. The big message of the Budget lies in Mr Brown’s unshakable belief that it is the role of government to shape society in his chosen image. He offered schemes, task forces, incentives and initiatives for just about anything you could think of. I gave up counting after the hand-outs for science clubs and the children’s olympics. There is something manic about all this.

After three months in which Mr Cameron has been stealing New Labour clothes, Mr Brown claimed some back. The Tory leader has presented himself as a champion of the environmentalists, so the chancellor has discovered his own green credentials. Drivers of large 4x4s will pay the price in higher vehicle excise duty. I am not sure it will do much for global warming. In this respect the Budget was another reminder of the advantage that lies with the incumbent in politics. Governments can do things. Oppositions have only words.

Here, though, we return to the ghost at the banquet. The unavoidable irony is that the fate of both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron lies as much in the hands of Mr Blair as in their own. The biggest determinant of the outcome of the next general election will probably be the manner of Mr Blair’s departure.

If the prime minister goes at a time of his own choosing, bestowing his blessing on his successor, Mr Brown will be hard to beat. If, on the other hand, Mr Blair is bundled from office by those who now claim the chancellor as their champion, then Mr Brown will be forever tainted as a creature of the Old Labour left. There lies the reason for Mr Brown’s lament.

philip.stephens@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.