Will it be Brown's or Darling's Budget?

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background to today's Budget statement.IT'S predicted to be one of the most boring Budget speeches of modern times - not for the content but for the way it is delivered in the Commons.

Graham Dines

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background to the Budget statement.

IT'S predicted to be one of the most boring Budget speeches of modern times - not for the content but for the way it is delivered in the Commons.

At 12.30, Chancellor Alistair Darling - not noted for his sparkling wit and repartee - will stand up before MPs and bamboozle them with a welter of statistics and gloomy forecasts about the leading economies of the world, and in particular that of the United Kingdom.

It will be interspersed with extra duties on alcohol and cigarettes and increasing amounts of indirect taxation. But the question is: how many MPs and those listening at home will still be awake at the end of the speech?

Fully aware that he has a problem in this regard, Mr Darling asked pupils in east London yesterday about the finer points of holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

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“I have got to speak to the House of Commons for an hour tomorrow and I am thinking of ways of holding their attention as well,” he told the school children who had been assembled to be on their best behaviour for a visit not only of Mr Darling but Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well.

“It is difficult you know - you have got to get everybody to sit there and listen and capture their attention and still have them sitting there an hour later.”

Asked by a schoolboy why he did not use a PowerPoint presentation for the Budget, Mr Darling said: “The House of Commons is a bit old-fashioned that way, you can't have a PowerPoint presentation.”

At least we'll be spared the breakneck speed at which Gordon Brown delivered all his Budget speeches during the past 10 years. The length of the texts were little different from those of his many distinguished predecessors at the Treasury, but he rattled through the hundreds of pages so quickly that it was almost as if wife Sarah had told him that lunch would be served at 1.30pm, and if he wasn't there to sit down on time, it would go cold.

Like Prime Minister's Questions, the timing of the Budget was altered as one of the first acts of Tony Blair's premiership. Instead of starting at 3.30pm on a Tuesday, it was switched to 12.30pm on Wednesday - just after the new time for PMQs. It gives the Stock Market and the City time to digest the content before the closing of the day's trading and enables television commentators and economists to work out the implications for the audience at home.

Will the Budget be all Alastair Darling's own work? With Gordon Brown keeping a close eye on the economy from Number 10, Mr Darling will no doubt have consulted closely with his predecessor and will have been given the clear direction in which the Prime Minister wants the nation's fiscal affairs to go.

Indeed, many will see the Budget statement as being read by Mr Darling but having been crafted and scripted by Mr Brown.

That may sound cynical, but it makes perfect sense to many in parliament. And an East Anglia Labour MP has not been afraid to say so.

Charles Clarke, the MP for Norwich South who was sacked as Home Secretary in Tony Blair's last Cabinet reshuffle and who is not noted for his high regard for his successor, said yesterday said Gordon Brown must use the Budget to reinvigorate his premiership after a “difficult” start.

He accused Mr Brown of not setting out a clear direction for Labour and should now “put to bed” doubts about the Government.

“It was a difficult start before Christmas both around the Northern Rock issue and the Pre-Budget Report, when there were controversies throwing around at various times,” he told Sky News.

“The Government has firmed up its line since Christmas but I think the Budget really is the chance to set out a very clear direction on the important essence of what this Labour Government about.''

Mr Clarke said the Budget should have green issues and sustainability at its heart, particularly in transport and energy. “Whether he succeeds or not is what we'll have to see and that's why the Budget's an important moment because it can put to bed some of those uncertainties from before Christmas.”

But no matter who is really the mastermind behind the Budget, if it doesn't put the environment at the centre of its contents then it will be deemed by one and all as a failure.

For a Government which makes much of its green initiatives and policies, it seems absolutely illogical to be supporting major expansion of both Stansted and Heathrow airports. And that blame should be laid at the door of Mr Darling, who when Transport Secretary signalled his agreement in the Air Transport White Paper for bigger airports in the south of the country.

Mr Darling - yes, let's be charitable and credit him with the contents of the Commons speech - is said to have been persuaded by the argument that the UK should follow the example of the Irish Republic and tax plastic carrier bags out of existence.

As welcome a move as that will be, it will be swamped by the rise in aircraft emissions which will be generated by the super sized Stansted and Heathrow.

Extra duty on beer, wine and spirits are a given, in an attempt to overcome both the binge drinking culture which was encouraged by the Blair government's approval of 24-hour long opening hours, and the supermarkets selling liquor more cheaply than bottled water.

Despite record prices at the pumps, fuel duty looks certain to rise, as well as swingeing new taxes on gas guzzling cars.

One thing's certain. When Alistair Darling sits down, very few of us will be better off as the economy heads towards that most dreaded of words - recession.

And not let's forget just who was in charge of the nation's finances for the past 10 years: Gordon Brown.

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