You know what, I have now heard more than enough about how much Gordon Brown is enjoying this recession. Every time you read about the Prime Minister, they tell you that his mood is getting better and better.
Having been known as a gloomy old nail-biting misery-guts, he is now presented to us as a man “in his element”, the life and soul of the party, a smile or a witty aside never off his lips.
They say that he was giving a speech the other day, and his mobile phone went. “Aha,” quipped funster Gordon Brown, “that’ll be another bank going bust!” Isn’t he a scream?
According to Alastair Campbell – who is now back offering his Luciferian advice – the sheer gravity of the downturn has “brought out the best” in the Prime Minister. It is something to do with the humbling of the capitalists and the brutal necessity of government action – a reordering of our political economy that has put this manic meddler where he wants to be, at the very centre of the stage. “Gordon,” pronounced Campbell, “is a round peg in a round hole.”
Well, folks, I do not presume to comment on the geometry of Gordon’s pegness, but there is no doubt that Campbell is right about one thing. He is in a hole, all right, and a hole very largely of his own digging.
He yesterday asked Parliament and public to approve a series of estimates for public borrowing that amount to a humiliation for himself and his Government. He is proposing to run a budget deficit of £128 billion by 2010 – that is, eight per cent of GDP. Overall government debt, currently running at 40 per cent, is going to hit 60 per cent of GDP by the same year, more than it has been ever since Harold Wilson was in No 10.
He is like some sherry-crazed old dowager who has lost the family silver at roulette, and who now decides to double up by betting the house as well. He is like a drunk who has woken to the most appalling hangover, and who reaches for the whisky bottle to help him dull the pain.
And the reason he is taking such a frantic and unprecedented gamble is that he has no option. He is running out of time. The electoral cycle is drawing to a close; he funked the election in October last year, and ever since the public have threatened to punish him at the polls. He needs the economy to perk up fast; he needs some signs of life before May 2010, and with the patient prone on the slab, he needs to perform an emergency operation, no matter how risky it may seem. And he may yet be proved right, of course.
Perhaps we will all respond to his fiscal stimulus, like a bunch of overweight and exhausted lab rats shown one last piece of cheese. Perhaps we will all scamper off in the direction of the prize, and boost consumption, and keep the economy moving. Perhaps the news that everything has been reduced by 2.5 per cent will indeed cause the tills to ching for the next 13 months – which is the duration of the VAT reduction.
Perhaps there are millions of people out there who will rethink their plans for a credit crunch Christmas. Instead of giving each other presents of home-made chutney and second-hand books, perhaps they will be so filled with hope and confidence by Alistair Darling that they will pour out to Woolworths (if it still exists), and lash out on the traditional British Yuletide tokens of fealty – Wiis and Nintendos and Plasma TVs.
Perhaps they will think it sensible to buy now, while the tax holiday is there. We must hope that they do; that is, we must hope that all those who have disposable income will spend it, because otherwise the economy will simply seize up; and that, indeed, is the essential argument in favour of some kind of fiscal stimulus by government.
When credit has dried up, when confidence has collapsed, it is the duty of the Government to keep the economy moving with sensible and affordable investment. That is why it is vital to push on with the big infrastructure projects in London that will not only deliver jobs and growth in the short term, but which will help to make the capital and the UK economy better placed, long-term, to compete.
The tragedy of our current predicament, and the tragedy of Gordon Brown, is that by his previous profligacy he has left himself so little room for manoeuvre.
The Government may treat the public like laboratory rats, but they are not entirely idiotic. They can see that this respite is only temporary. They can see that the tax rises are round the corner, and even as they tiptoe towards the cheese, they can see Alistair Darling waiting with his cosh.
They may decide that they are better off keeping their money, and not spending it in the next 13 months, in order to protect themselves against the future rapacity of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister.
We now know that to fund this fiscal stimulus, taxes are going up on incomes over £40,000; we know there are going to be huge increases in national insurance that will hit employees, employers and the self-employed. How on earth is that supposed to boost job creation?
Might it not have been better, if you were going to splurge £20 billion in tax cuts, to spend it on cutting National Insurance and helping business to keep people in work?
There is nothing wrong in principle with a fiscal stimulus. What makes the remedy so desperate is that Gordon Brown managed to squander such eye-watering sums when times were good.
It now emerges that of all the jobs created since 1997, two thirds have been in the public sector. No wonder the country is broke. The more Gordon Brown swanks and preens and claims he is the man to fix things, the more he recalls the firefighters in that American movie called Backdraft, who tried to claim credit for heroically (and abortively) attending an inferno that they had ignited.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 24 November 2008 under the heading, ” Why Gordon Brown the manic meddler had to take such a massive gamble”]