A mixed reception
The morning after the night before how does the Budget look? Some talk of a tax cut, others of a tax con. Yesterday Gordon Brown was the political showman, taunting the Tories that his tax cut was bigger than theirs. Today he turned himself into the softly-spoken Chancellor committed to tax reform and finding a little bit of money when the national budget was tight to help families and pensioners.
Shorn of the theatre, the rabbits out of hats and the political positioning it is fair to say that this was a significant reforming budget. Cutting tax rates in the way that Gordon Brown has is a reform that the Tories have called for and would have wanted to do themselves.
So why such a mixed reception and why do so many appear to believe that it's a con (if, that is, the emails, comments and calls to the BBC are representative)? It's down - once again - to the way he chose to present it. And it's because he's got form. Brown almost mumbled his announcement that he was going to remove the 10p starting rate so few realised that he'd announced, in effect, an £8.5bn pound tax rise. So some who cheered his £9bn tax cut felt deflated when they learnt what had really happened.
Faced by allegations that what "the Gord giveth, the Gord taketh away," the Chancellor's felt the need to point out that he did spend £2.5bn pounds on higher tax credits for families and taking some pensioners out of tax. Paid for, mind you, by higher green and business taxes.
The key to Budgets though is what in them proves to be lasting. Gordon Brown's calculations were almost entirely political and almost entirely about stopping David Cameron in his tracks. When the Tories talk of tax cuts, he'll say "I've delivered the lowest income tax rate in 75 years". When they talk of hiking green taxes to pay for personal tax cuts, he'll say "I've done it". When they talk of family tax cuts, he'll say "I've done that too but without discriminating against unmarried people or those abandoned by their partners". When they talk of controlling spending, he'll say "I'm doing it".
Team Cameron's reply is that that's all fine. Far from being their winning card, the economy's proved to be a dud for the Tories in recent elections because they've looked like a dangerously risky option. If their spending plans are the same as Brown's and their tax plans only different at the margins, perhaps people will plump for shiny, new likeable Dave as against grumpy old Gordon.
Ah no, thinks Gordon Brown. His calculation is that his budget will make the Tory right more twitchy for bigger and bolder tax cuts; will narrow the George Osbourne's options for smaller, targeted tax cuts and leave them facing the need to promise to hike up green taxes in a way which will prove to be mightily unpopular.
Who's right? Wish I knew.
PS: Talking of grumpy Gordon wasn't it fascinating, if, at times, slightly excruciating listening to to John Humphrys ask him again and again if he was liked (hear the interview by clicking here). You sensed his awkwardness. You sensed him shrink physically at the need to engage with such questions. David Cameron and Tony Blair are showmen who are comfortable talking about themselves. Brown hates it. And can't quite bring himself to say "go hang, it doesn't matter if people like me or not".
Someone once told Margaret Thatcher that while research showed that the public didn't like her, it didn't matter, because it showed clearly that, most importantly, they did respect her. You know what? She never spoke to that person again.
PPS : The Tories have just gone personal.
The Shadow Chancellor George Osborne launched a scathing attack on Gordon Brown's style of leadership following the Budget. "Look no further than yesterday's Budget... stealthy, sneaky unable to tell the truth - he's not the man who can restore public trust in government because he's the reason people don't believe a word they say any more."
And David Cameron who normally steers clear of these things has joined in by saying: "I think Gordon Brown's problem is that he finds it hard to be straight with people. If he had stood up and said 'Money is tight so I'm going to simplify the tax system but cannot afford to cut taxes', that would have been one thing. But he did not. Instead he pulled an elaborate con trick. People will ask 'Can I trust this man as my prime minister?' and I think they will say 'No, we can't'."
Evidence that they're frit (to use the word Mrs T once used) and lack a policy critique of Budget tax measures they say they'll vote for? Or low political cunning? You decide.