Robert Shrimsley: Man enough not to say sorry

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Gordon Brown has a golden rule: never apologise.

Sometimes however, the scale of the error is just so obvious that a chap has to stick out his chin and come before you in all his naked humanity and admit that, yes, he’s made a mistake. There is much advice on how to make a virtue of this. The carefully calibrated acknowledgement of one’s fallibility can go down terribly well if performed deftly. The public warms to someone who is big enough to admit he is not perfect. Monday was that day for Gordon Brown, and so the chancellor strode manfully into the Commons chamber and did...no such thing.

It is not that Mr Brown does not grasp that the public likes someone big enough to admit he is not perfect. It is just that he prefers them to think he is.

The words “sorry” and “wrong” are about as common in his vocabulary as a red squirrel in the south east. It is not often one hears him utter the words “death rattle of my economic credibility” or observe that “with hindsight I might have done it differently”.

So, faced with the weight of evidence that he had loused up on his growth forecasts, his borrowing forecasts, the structure of his policy on tax credits and a number of other budget tweaks, how would the chancellor maintain his golden rule of never, ever admitting he got it wrong when covering things that he simply had to include in his statement?

The answer, of course, was that, he wouldn’t. In place of ‘frank and heartfelt’, Mr Brown opted for ‘fast and brief’. Hence, the sentence which might have begun “I’m sorry I overstated the growth forecast, which I said would be 3 - 3.5 per cent,” instead ran: “This year we have seen inflation around 2 per cent; interest rates not rising above 10 per cent but peaking below 5 per cent...not the economy in recession, but growth even in this toughest year at 1.75 per cent; the 34th quarter of continued growth with low inflation - continued growth under this government.”

Actually this is not to do justice to the magnitude of his mea culpa. In fact the line about the growth forecast went more like “growthmumbleharrumphburbleburble1.75 percent” And then, a masterstroke - making us “the first government of any party to achieve 8 years of uninterrupted growth since 1805.”

Not so much an apology as a triumph to be exalted with the Battle of Trafalgar. In 200 year’s time people will be celebrating around Brown’s column and sending a flotilla of statisticians to make the bicentenary of the chancellor growth forecast climbdown.

So that was growth. What about borrowing? Again Mr Brown used the disguised apology, telling the House that “the current budget deficit which reached a peak of £55bn billion at today’s prices in 1993 will fall from £19.9bn last year, to 10.6bn this year and then to four, then zero”. So not, in fact, a humiliating retreat from his figures of only nine months ago, when he predicted £6bn this year, followed by £1bn and a surplus of £4bn? Well yes it was but this was about as humble as Mr Brown’s constitution will permit.

There were other admissions if one chose to look for them. There was the admission that he had utterly messed up the structure of his tax credits policy, disguised as a magnanimous decision to lift from £2,500 to £25,000 the ceiling on changes of earnings which requires repayment of credits.

Then there were the retreats from a number of earlier budget concessions, now disguised as a heroic clampdown on tax loopholes. But those of us who knew that Mr Brown himself had created those loopholes, know that he was morally grovelling as he announced them, even if it looked otherwise.

Then there was Mr Brown’s apology on his plans to allow people to use their pension pot to invest in residential property. Having decided to let them do this, the chancellor has decided it would be a mistake. His admission of error was not in the speech itself but can be found, plain as day, in paragraph 5.63 on page 107 of the accompanying pre-budget report document

As for the rest of this speech - there was the predicted raid on oil companies, a bit on health and education and then what seemed a preposterously long section on loft-insulation. In other words, just padding.

By now the chancellor was in full micro-managing banality. There was to be a young person’s fund, run for “the kids” and “by the kids”, which presumably is a vision of hundreds of Mickey Rooneys putting on shows to demonstrate what the kids can do but, since the youngsters will be running them, will probably end up involving youth centres filled with Bacardi Breezers and XBoxes.

Still it might keep them from going off the rails. One only had to look at Mr Brown’s youthful opposite number to see the dangers. Poor George Osborne, 13 ¾ , was keen to show his mettle against the mistake-spattered chancellor. His speech had some good lines - but was delivered in a kind of Dalek-monotone which destroyed its impact. He needs speech-coaching and fast. On the upside, he might be eligible for a grant under Mr Brown’s initiative.

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