Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The big Brown hospital pass

Watching Alistair Darling squirm today, we were reminded of the virtues of good succession planning...

During Gordon Brown’s decade as chancellor, he presided over an unprecedented period of economic growth (for which he can take only some of the credit) – so the tax receipts kept pouring into the Treasury coffers. As a result of this (and perhaps his original deal with Blair) Brown had the political clout to dictate terms to the PM – including an extended role for the Treasury in all Government spending decisions.

This meant that on Budget Day Brown had plenty of money to spend, and carte blanche as to how to spend it (rumour has it that Blair wasn’t even allowed to look at the Budget in advance). So the Chancellor was free to spend his way to popularity in pursuit of his overriding ambition: moving next door to No.10. And sure enough, his succession was a formality (naturally - he’d made very sure there was no other viable candidate).

Unfortunately, the Treasury succession plan wasn’t quite so hot. Whoever succeeded Brown was always going to have a thankless task. Not only did he have an unblemished record, he was also a notorious control freak – and there was nobody left in government with the clout to stand up to him. When the global economy went into meltdown, a tough job became almost an impossible one – particularly since Gordon had been too busy spending his way to power to save some pennies for a rainy day.

Darling’s hardly covered himself in glory since he took the job, but he’s been dealt a rotten hand. Even David Cameron admitted as much on Wednesday – yes, Darling had endured the ‘most disastrous start of any chancellor in modern British history’ – but most of his woes can be traced back to Brown’s mistakes. ‘Let's be in no doubt as to the real source of the Government's problems,’ bayed Dave. ‘Ask any question about this Budget and the answer comes back to one man: the Prime Minister. The Chancellor was put in a hole by the Prime Minister - and they've both kept digging.’ Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg took a very similar line, saying Darling was ‘struggling to clear up a mess left by his boss’.

In the end, today’s Budget was a bit of a non-event – as you’d expect from a Chancellor with no room whatsoever to manoeuvre. Given the parlous state of the economy, Darling can’t afford the grand gestures that Brown used to enjoy. And it’s not as if he can just rely on his natural charisma to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse…

But watching him squirm through today’s speech, we couldn’t help feeling that Darling’s become the designated Government fall guy. And then when the heat has died down a bit, he’ll probably end up being replaced by Brown’s protégé – Education Minister (and all-round bruiser) Ed Balls. We’re almost starting to feel sorry for him...

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