It was not so much a Budget, more a lengthy application for the job of prime minister. Gordon Brown’s 10th Budget speech was one of his longest, and one of his most political. It subtly hinted at differences in approach to those of Tony Blair and less subtly hammered home the message that David Cameron’s Conservatives were not to be trusted with the public finances. Unintentionally, it also gave a chilling insight into the chancellor’s management approach.. – one that would need to change considerably if he moved into 10 Downing Street.

Mr Brown’s triangulation was most evident when it came to tax and education. The chancellor reeled off a string of announcements to support “personalised learning” in schools, with the aim of matching per capita spending in the private sector. He spoke with gratitude of the benefits he had gained from his state education but contrasted the public sector with the much greater resources that private schools can deploy on each pupil.

But Mr Brown’s substantive point was that he was able to find the money for schools because – unlike Mr Cameron – he was not promising to reduce public spending as a share of gross domestic product. His intention was to suggest the Tories remain a party that would starve education, whereas Labour – and Gordon Brown in particular – could be trusted to “invest” in it. In case anyone thought this was Mr Blair’s policy, the chancellor spoke of building a national consensus around such public spending, an objective on which the prime minister has notoriously been more sceptical.

As Mr Cameron noted in his reply to the Budget speech, there had been no mention of the health service, still claiming to be short of money after a
90 per cent increase in resources. Mr Brown will struggle to persuade voters that a cash infusion for education will have any greater success – it is not just resources that make private education more successful, but its ethos.

Nor does Mr Brown appear to see any problem in the rising tax burden, which is taking Britain back to levels last seen in the early 1980s. As the CBI, the employers’ association, has pointed out, the UK has slipped down the international league table, while the corporation tax rate is no longer one of the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This has consequences for Britain’s attractiveness as a place to do business, as the chancellor recognised in his promise to discuss the corporate tax system with business. In this context, his initiative to create a new City of London taskforce to promote British financial services globally is welcome. For too long it has been left to successive lord mayors to sell the Square Mile and ensure its unique global leadership is preserved.

But it will take more than better marketing to preserve London’s pre-eminence. Mr Brown will need to listen to business concerns over the impact of stamp duty on share trading. The
government has also failed to create a 21st-century public transport system for the capital, with chronic congestion on the Tube and no work yet on CrossRail – in spite of years of City lobbying.

Nor will business be impressed by the first moves in the chancellor’s comprehensive spending review, due next year. There will be applause for the freeze on the Home Office budget and the 5 per cent cuts in spending at four other Whitehall departments from 2007-08. Not since the early 1990s have public sector organisations been expected to match the performance of the private sector in delivering more for less.

However, there is no indication of any fundamental questioning of public spending that would require every department to review its programmes and find activities they could cease to perform, so as to release resources for genuine priorities. Instead, yesterday’s Budget came with the customary long list of more jobs for government to do, without any justification that taxpayers’ money is better spent by Whitehall bureaucrats than by taxpayers themselves. So the government will set targets for expanding trade with India, China and emerging economies. It will encourage people who cannot afford to buy a home to become part-owners. It will invest in new environmental and microgeneration technologies.

Meanwhile, there were the usual handouts to win the hearts and minds of particular groups of voters. Pensioners, for example, will continue to collect their £200 winter fuel allowance and will soon have free off-peak national bus travel. Rather than offer these demeaning baubles like some sort of charitable handout, the government should raise the basic state pension so pensioners can choose how to spend the money themselves.

This is unlikely to happen with Mr Brown, however. His stewardship of the Treasury has been marked by obsessive tinkering with tax, benefits and public spending. Increasingly, he has expanded his remit across government, so Budgets have become more like “state of the union” speeches in which the chancellor announces myriad initiatives that should be left to cabinet ministers. Mr Brown, the message is, is the chief executive running domestic policy, while Mr Blair – the chairman – handles foreign affairs.

One reason may be that the job of the chancellor is much less demanding since monetary policy was handed over to the Bank of England. And when there is no scope for big give-aways and no need to raise taxes, fiscal policy comes down to small things. The result is that Mr Brown micro-manages Whitehall spending to an unprecedented degree.

If he continues to do so when he succeeds Mr Blair, the government will grind to a halt. The prime minister must focus on several big issues at any one moment and leave it to others to handle the operational detail. Perhaps Mr Brown will change his management style when he lands the big job – but there is no evidence in his latest job application that he will find this easy.

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