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Fightback budget?

Brian Taylor | 12:29 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Seldom has a Chancellor required to prise so much political credit from a Budget.

Seldom has a Chancellor had so few levers to tug.

Labour needs all the help it can get to avoid defeat at the forthcoming UK General Election.

Indeed, its organisational strategy, as described in the agenda for this weekend's Scottish party conference, is billed as "Operation Fightback".

Yet Alistair Darling has conceded, in advance, that he has nothing to give away, no sweeties to disburse.

Partly, of course, that is expectation control.

The voters will then be invited to applaud any concessions which he contrives to find - and, Labour hopes, to respond at the ballot box.

Partly, it is simple truth.

The leitmotif of politics going forward will be public spending constraint, not largesse.

However, we can expect the parties - all the parties - to finesse such matters to some extent while they appeal to the voters.

They will fix jaws and talk courageously of the tough decisions to be taken on public spending.

Detail may be a little more limited.

But back to Labour.

Can you imagine the Prime Minister's mood when he was told about the behaviour of Byers, Hoon and Hewitt, caught in a sting showing their apparent willingness to work for a lobbying firm in return for cash?

Is it not enough, he must be asking, that Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt mounted a quasi-coup against him in January? Now this.

Labour is adamant that the former ministers have done nothing wrong - but, nonetheless, they have been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party for what Jack Straw called their "stupidity" in focusing upon their own future earnings rather than the current concerns of the electorate.

In Scotland, of course, more joy for Labour. Anne Moffat has been deselected, having lost her appeal against being dropped as the candidate in East Lothian.

Is she going quietly? Far from it.

She has spoken out against what she believes is a "bullying" culture at all levels of the party. She is particularly scathing about Iain Gray, accusing him of cowardice in failing to defend her.

Mr Gray, the MSP for East Lothian, declined to enter a slanging match with his erstwhile colleague. Instead, he said that the decision had been properly taken by a majority of the local party.

And, in Glasgow, more fall-out from the departure of Steven Purcell.

The Herald reports today that City Building, the council's arms length operation, will no longer host a stall at this weekend's Labour conference in the city.

No great surprise, given that such a policy was declared by the council - but a further twist in the tale nevertheless to follow my colleague Raymond Buchanan's disclosure that Glasgow businessman Willie Haughey has invited Scotland's spending watchdog to examine his contracts with the city council.

Mr Haughey is exasperated that he has been drawn into the row, declaring "enough is enough".

Mr Haughey, however, remains a firm Labour supporter and donor.

Labour leaders must simply hope they can prevail upon others to follow his lead.

Gordon Brown will argue at party conference this weekend that the choice is between social justice under Labour and an "age of austerity" under the Tories, with the SNP, he'll say, offering "a change we cannot afford".

To gain an audience with the electorate, to get a hearing for their message at all, politicians need a suitable environment, free from the sort of competing distractions currently besetting Labour.

Mr Brown must feel about sections of his party, as Clement Attlee did towards a troublesome colleague, that a "period of silence" would be welcome.

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