My friend was telling me about his project over a large meal and several glasses of wine I asked him how this fitted into his diet He told me that the last few days had gone badly He had lapsed. So how would he cope when he went to be weighed next? My friend looked up and declared resolutely: "I won't go this week." By adjusting the timescale of the economic cycle Gordon Brown has done the equivalent of missing a week or two at Weight Watchers. For my temporarily lapsed friend, the other options were giving up his diet or turning up to be weighed and facing the fatally off-putting humiliation on the scales. For Mr Brown, the other short-term options were putting up taxes or cutting back on public spending. Wisely, Mr Brown chose the least worst option of changing his rules in order to stick to them. Political opponents and business leaders shake their heads disapprovingly They regard the manoeuvre as a moment of great significance It will not prove to be so.
Combining prudence with a purpose was never going to be easy. Immediately after the 1997 election, the focus was almost entirely on prudence Purpose hardly got a look in. It was not even clear what the purpose was.For several years after that, prudence and purpose worked together in a conveniently neat harmony Golden rules were met while public spending grew This was a substantial achievement. Mr Brown hemmed himself in by giving away power to the independent Bank of England and by his self-imposed rules. That was the brilliant contrivance, the recognition that only by giving away power and flexibility would he be given the political space to increase public spending.Now, Mr Brown leans a little towards imprudence in order to save the purpose. There is nothing unusual in such expedient shifts away from apparent orthodoxy.
In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher adopted policies that blew apart her much proclaimed medium term financial strategy. As she hailed the rigid targets, political expediency demanded a looser monetary policy. The only surprise is that Mr Brown has managed in the past to get away without making transparent adjustments to economic policy.Of much greater political significance is the announcement that the public spending review is to be postponed for a year until the summer of 2007 to take effect in 2008. The postponement tells us little about the timing of Tony Blair's departure from power, but a lot about the possible tensions leading up to it.