The undoing of Brown

The Chancellor's chances of succeeding Tony Blair are looking less day by day.

by Patience Wheatcroft, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The odds are lengthening on Gordon Brown making it to Number 10, despite Tony Blair's recent difficulties. The problem for the ambitious Chancellor is that the longer Blair delays his handover, the less impressive will look the credentials of the man who would succeed him.

Brown takes every opportunity to tell us what a successful economy he has fashioned, regurgitating numbers that he has digested from a carefully edited selection of statistics. But the actuality is different, as anyone running a business knows. Brown's chickens are coming home to roost and the poison injected into the UK economy is now taking effect. Increasing the tax burden slows down business growth. Brown knows that he needs thriving businesses to generate the social progress he wants to make, but he has not been able to escape his interventionist nature, which drives him to tax, regulate and meddle at every opportunity.

The result is that while Brown will regale us with reports of his success when he unveils his belated Pre-Budget Report this month, those who pay taxes know that the truth is different. The CBI claims that new taxes levied on business have collected £51 billion since Labour came into office in 1997. Business investment in Britain is low by international standards - that figure must have something to do with it.

But Brown needs to get his money from somewhere. He has been adept at juggling the numbers, but eventually the tallyman appears. There is a growing realisation that just because something is termed a Public/Private Finance deal, or even a Public/Private Partnership, it does not mean that someone, somewhere, will not have to pay for it. And that someone is us, the taxpayers.

The idea of getting the private sector to fund much-needed investment in the country's infrastructure has been pivotal to this government's tenure. There may have been an argument to be made for the principle, but the practice was flawed, for the administration chose to present to electors a miracle: new hospitals, new schools, new roads, without any cost to taxpayers.

This is nonsense, but the only question is how long it takes for the nonsense to become apparent. The Treasury is confident that there is nothing to worry about, but its critics are very unhappy. In particular, they are nervous about the guarantees that have been provided in a nod-and-a-wink way, which mean that the taxpayer is liable but the Government would prefer not to admit as much. Brown gets very angry when accused of Enron-style accounting, but to some observers that is what his dexterity with numbers brings to mind.

The Office for National Statistics has done its bit to help. Because of the artificial structure created to mask the effective renationalisation of Railtrack, the ONS deems that its £21 billion of debt does not need to feature on the national balance sheet. Neither do the billions going into the London Underground.

The Mayor of London wanted to fund the renovation of the antiquated system through a bond issue, but the Chancellor insisted that there should be a PPP. The bankers agreed to put up the funds only when they were provided with 'letters of comfort' making it clear that if the companies involved could not pay the banks, the Government would make sure that they got their cash.

A company that chose not to make provision in its accounts for such an undertaking would be castigated, but Brown breezily brushes off any criticism.

And when his spending reaches such levels that even by employing such dubious accounting techniques, he is still in danger of breaking his own rules, what does he do? He decrees that he will have succeeded in borrowing only to invest over the length of the cycle, thus keeping to his golden rule, because he has decided that the cycle started earlier than everyone thought, thus giving him the benefit of a couple of years of low spending. Even the Governor of the Bank of England could not contain his anger at such bare-faced contempt for the facts.

Had the spending spree brought commensurate benefits to the public, Brown might not be heading for such a fall. Instead, it has produced more public-sector workers on much higher earnings, but with shrinking productivity.

Yet, in what many in business see as the final economic insult, all those public-sector workers are to continue to enjoy a defined benefit pension from a retirement age of 60.

As the private sector struggles to cope with the impending pensions crisis, preparing to shovel £1 billion into the new Pension Protection Fund, the Government dropped plans to lift the retirement age for those currently in the public sector. The bill for public-sector pensions could burden future generations to the tune of more than £800 billion, according to the latest research from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

You will not find that number on the Government's books either. Brown could be drawing his share of it rather sooner than he would like.

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