The Chancellor does not speak often in the House – there are probably two set pieces each year and he prepares meticulously for them, as he does for his other set piece at the Labour Party Conference. They are usually very strong, well-prepared and well-rehearsed performances, aimed at securing his place at the centre of to-day’s Labour Party.
To day, for whatever reason, the speech didn’t work as well as it usually does. The jokes weren’t as funny; the sound bites were less well-polished; the bull points less well received by his backbenchers and the counter attack by Michael Howard was very effective.
It started off just like all the other speeches. Two thick volumes of Hansards were put on top of the despatch box, on which he placed his notes. These meant that he minimised the head movement between reading his notes and addressing the House. The Prime Minister sat next to him, looking intent throughout the speech, although he knew its contents.
His strategy up to now has been to produce low estimates of growth, so that when the economy “overperforms”, he then has money to give away. This has served him well; and it did so again to day. After September 11th, most countries have revised downwards their forecasts of growth, but Brown has been able to stick with the one for this year he produced in the Budget as that was on the low side.
But there was much good news, not least the extra £1 billion next year for the NHS; but the trouble with much of Brown’s good news is that it is so complicated. If he had got up and announced a big increase in the retirement pension, there would have been cheers. Instead, he said that in 2003, the Government would proceed with the introduction of a new Pension Credit, the Secretary of State would publish a consultation document explaining it and it would help around half of all pensioner households. That is more difficult to cheer; likewise extending the Working Families Tax Credit to couples without children is worthy; but all MP’s know that the WFTC is difficult to administer and hard to understand. And that is part of the trouble with Gordon Brown; he likes to micromanage other Government Departments, not least the Social Security system. Problems are analysed and he comes up with a targeted solution. But each targeted solution is then added to a complicated welfare system, and the new system has to interact with all the existing benefits, making it yet more complicated.
His micro-management of colleagues’ departments led to the main problem with his speech. He spent a disproportionate amount of time on the Wanless report, on the NHS and got lost in it. This led many people to ask why we have a Secretary of State for Health, when it seems the key decisions have been taken by Derek Wanless and Gordon Brown. I personally think he was unwise to rule out additional sources of income for the country’s health service, and what the Chancellor said to day may come back to haunt him.
In fairness, to Gordon Brown, he pushed many of the right buttons; what he said about child poverty, third world aid, child poverty was good. There was a suspicion that we had heard much of it before, and delivery had been disappointing. And the weakest bit of his speech and his responses to questions was where he sought to attack the Opposition.
Gordon, let me give you some advice; that simply won’t work anymore. People know you have been in Government since 1997, and hold you and your colleagues responsible for what has gone wrong. Blaming us cuts no ice.