On his way to power at Number 10 Gordon Brown was keen to associate himself with the ever larger sums of public money the government decided to raise and spend on public services. I remember grasping just how single minded and professional he was about the use of public money when I went to a briefing on FE colleges one day.
I went because my local FE college had asked me to take up a matter for them. I was invited along with every other MP because Ministers wished to use the Civil Service to help them with the organisation of the meeting, so it could not just be a Labour party affair. I went expecting the HE/FE Minister or maybe a Junior Treasury Minister to take us through the detailed numbers of individual FE colleges and answer our queries. To my surprise we were greeted by no less a figure than the then Chancellor himself, who showed great grasp of the detailed numbers of each FE college constituency by constituency. Most of the MPs present were Labour MPs, and Gordon Brown was good at either showing them just how well their FE college was already doing, or promising them theirs would do better next year whilst thanking them for their interest and good work as constituency members.
It was a virtuoso performance which told you half of what you need to know to understand how Brown governs (The other half is when in doubt throw the kitchen sink at your opponents, never sparing the vilification). He believes that people vote for you if you associate yourself with spending large sums of money in their town or district. In this view all public spending is good. Big public spending is better. Lumps of money buy votes. Conservatives can be regularly condemned for not having spent as much, or for probably not spending as much in the future,whatever their true intentions.
Watching the PM I think we should expect more of this simple combination of bash the Tories and spend the money. The fact that the government has spent far too much and is getting such shocking value for what it is spending will not concern him unduly. The fact that the more he spends the more unpopular he becomes will not be a thought which crosses his mind. The fact that the hugely overborrowed public sector is now the main cause of poor UK economic performance will not occur to him. The limit on new debt and borrowing placed by the high levels of total debt outstanding and of new debt being drawn down will be ignored. Instead the PM will order Ministers to spend what it takes – in the naive belief that more spending will in the end win through.
First World War Generals in the first couple of years of the war, safely encamped well behind the front trenches and far back from the shellfire, ordered yet more men over the top and across No-Man’s Land in the belief that it was just a matter of time and numbers before they won. The PM takes a similar approach to public money in the face of adverse opinion polls. This week we have seen the offer of Â£1.5 billion to Manchester for public transport schemes, and Â£3000 a day to anyone wrongfully detained under the government’s lock up anyone suspicious scheme. In recent weeks we have seen Â£2.7 billion for the Crewe by-election problem of the abolition of the 10p tax band. The fact that Crewe did not say “Thank you” for the extra does not seem to have led to any rethink on the strategy.
This generosity is unlikely to extend to constituencies where Labour have no hope. Do not expect a generous package of infrastructure money for Henley this week to help the by-election there.