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I never cease to marvel at Gordon Brown. A lesser mortal would have arrived at the House of Commons despatch box feeling at least a touch defensive about those missed economic forecasts. Not a bit of it. Faced with bad, or in this case not-so-good, news the chancellor exudes insouciance.
Growth forecasts, borrowing figures and the rest were dismissed in the blink of an eye. Instead, Mr Brown donned his other guise as minister for everything. Far from running out of money, he had largesse to dispense to everyone you could think of. No matter it came courtesy of a windfall tax on the oil companies. Youth clubs, scientists, families, council-tax payers, even central-heating companies, all seem set to benefit from a rash of new government schemes and incentives.
Watching Mr Brown march unopposed into every recess of Whitehall, you wondered what was the purpose of all those other cabinet ministers whose salaries we pay. More to the point, why was Tony Blair still bothering to cling on in 10 Downing Street?
Look closely and there was serious politics as well as a certain hubris. On Tuesday, the Conservatives expect to crown the youthful David Cameron as their new leader. The chancellor, more impatient by the day to swap the Treasury for the premiership, was drawing afresh the political dividing lines between left and right.
The government, he declared, invests for the future. Its answer to the challenges and insecurities of globalisation is a partnership between the public and the private realms. The Conservatives, under Mr Cameron as much as his predecessors, would slash spending in pursuit of an ideological commitment to tax cuts.
Those who have glanced even occasionally at Mr Brown’s pronouncements will realise that this is hardly a new theme. But, then, the chancellor has rarely changed his mind during his tenure at the Treasury. Never mind that Mr Cameron promises to be a different sort of Tory leader. Forget that after years of spending at rates well above the pace of economic growth, the Treasury will soon run out of money. Dividing lines are dividing lines. The narrative is that Labour invests, the Tories cut. Mr Brown has spoken.
His calculation is that the nation dozes through events such as Monday’s. It is blithely indifferent to golden rules, tarnished or otherwise. By and large, Mr Brown has delivered stable growth, high employment and low inflation. In short, he still has credit in the bank.
Thus far the formula has worked, not least because a string of Tory leaders has failed to devise a counter strategy. Michael Howard spent much of the last general election campaign seeking to avoid an argument about the economy.
But now the chancellor faces some inescapable and uncomfortable realities. For all his confidence about a rebound in economic growth, his own assumptions include a tight squeeze on public spending after 2007 in order to balance the Treasury books. To most voters a prospective halving of the real growth in spending from the present 4 per cent plus will feel just like a cut.
Mr Brown’s well-known aversion to market-driven reforms in the most sensitive parts of the public realm will make it that much easier for Mr Cameron to argue that many of the tens of billions poured into health and education during recent years have been wasted. The more so if the chancellor is complicit in undermining Mr Blair’s remaining tenure.
Watching Mr Brown on Monday was to be reminded of how the present government has succeeded in changing the terms of political trade during the past eight years. For all the gambles and the chancellor’s more recent miscalculations, it has presided over stable economic growth and a much-needed step change in spending on vital public services.
But there was a whiff, too, of a government grown complacent and of a leader-in-waiting indifferent to the views of all but a narrow coterie of loyal supporters. Confidence drifts too easily into arrogance. The intellectual isolationism that saw the Treasury traduce the Turner report on pensions reform even before it was published speaks to the arrogance of power.
For his part, Mr Cameron is promising a new style of politics, more akin to the inclusive big tent approach of Mr Blair than to the instinctive tribalism of the chancellor. He comes to his new role unburdened by the ideology that has tortured his party for the past decade.
Reinventing one-nation Toryism will not be easy for the new leader. But the more Mr Brown extends the reach of the state, the easier it may be to construct a new centrist politics around active but smaller government. If Mr Cameron were shameless he might even call such a strategy the third way.
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