Budget 05: ‘Vote now, pay later’

Better than Arsenal. That was Brown’s assessment of his own performance as chancellor.

It’s a neat, headline-grabbing comparison. The trouble is it would have sounded better when Arsenal were on a high after a 49-match unbeaten run.

Now, having failed to notch a 50th, they are in something of a slump. And Brown’s boast that he has presided over 50 successive quarters of economic growth sounded all the more hollow for it.

Unlike Arsenal, at least Brown – and Britain as a result – is still very much in Europe. Though he made little mention of that. This close to an election that would have been too tricky a subject to address. But Brown was keen to emphasise that he had not ducked other Big Questions.

If previous Budgets had been earned the descriptor ‘cappuccino’ (all froth on top) or ‘Guinness’ (creamy and attractive on the surface but murky beneath), this had to be the Legacy Budget.

Whether the next parliament sees him stay on as chancellor, move up to prime minister, move sideways to the FO or abroad to the IMF, the chancellor did everything to ensure that his achievements over the last eight years are properly recognised.

So he stressed stability, emphasised employment and lauded living standards. He gloated over growth (3.1%, as forecast, he told baying Tories) and accentuated his achievements, not least independence for the Bank of England.

‘Those in this house who have forecast recession and called our public spending plans unaffordable are wrong,’ he crowed.

Every Budget sees predictions that Brown will tackle inequities in inheritance tax and stamp duty.

This time, there was a difference in that he tackled them, raising the thresholds on both. He extended the life span of the tax-free savings vehicles ISAs, invested in education and improved childcare allowances. Did I mention pensioners? Brown did: council tax refunds, free bus travel and money for the NHS.

He did pretty everything that voters wanted to see done – as long as it didn’t cost too much.

So far, so simplified. But being the instinctive tinkerer that he is he couldn’t resist complicating the already-complicated benefit system for low-income families. Here tax credits would cancel out tax burdens, he explained to understandable mystification.

Stability has replaced prudence (which received a cheer at her first mention more than half an hour in) as his true love. But it’s unlikely Brown was referring to her when he pledged not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Presumably he was referring to previous governments.

The trouble is, with this, his ninth Budget, the chancellor is now a man with a past of his own. That said this Budget was future-looking and our Gordon was clearly looking to his own.

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