Brown wows us with prudence

I am not a great fan of new Labour's rhetoric. Too often the incremental is proclaimed as revolutionary, the cautiously pragmatic as deeply principled. Even so I have become an admirer of the most mocked of all the government's slogans. To my own alarm, I even deployed the phrase myself the other day. Let's all stand up and give a cheer to "Prudence With a Purpose".

For reasons I will not go into now, I watched Gordon Brown's interview on GMTV's Sunday programme last weekend sitting on a sofa in the company of a former Tory MP. In the interview, extensively reported since, the Chancellor took a stern approach to public spending. As we watched, the admiring Conservative said to me, quite seriously and without a hint of mischief: "I wish we had him on our side. Indeed, I wish he had been our chancellor in the 1980s. He's Nigel Lawson without the reckless streak."

My early-morning conversation had echoes of an exchange with a member of the shadow cabinet. The day after the Tory front bench had gathered for one of their strategic "away days" recently, I was told by one of them that William "was very much in control . . . we are going to get the government on their failure to meet their promises . . . that is their Achilles heel . . . " Then he paused, becoming less exuberant. "The economy is our bloody problem. Are we going to get the credit for the recovery?" he asked nervously. He already knew the answer.

Consider now a chat I had with a senior Liberal Democrat (someone who was not on a sofa with me early on Sunday morning). He told me: "Our internal polling shows that voters see improvements in all the public services since the election except transport. We are going to make complete idiots of ourselves if we call for tax increases when people are already seeing improvements in services and when Brown will be able to spend more as well as cut taxes."

In other words, the opposition parties are in disarray over the issue that decides general elections, the economy in general and "tax-and-spend" in particular. This is quite an achievement for a Labour government in mid-term.

By spending carefully and demanding reforms in the public sector to go with the money, Blair and Brown have become masters of the debate over "tax-and-spend". How the Tories used to rub their hands with justified glee when those words "tax-and-spend" were mentioned. The Lib Dems, too, gained distinctive credit for their proposed "one pence on income tax" policy (although polls of floating voters showed that most of them assumed they were being asked to pay, literally, a penny more for miraculous improvements in schools and hospitals). Now a Labour chancellor holds the aces.

Some will argue that Brown can play such a politically unique hand because he is not really a Labour chancellor at all. But part of this elusive government's strength is that, while there are Thatcherite echoes here and there, the objectives remain explicitly different from what went before. It was over this point that I sloganised with my Tory friend on the sofa. I suggested to him that, while Brown had learnt lessons from the Lawson boom and indeed from the experience of the last Labour government, he was being prudent for a specific purpose.

Not that I have ever met anyone who is prudent without a purpose. No one has ever come up to me and said: "I am being careful for the hell of it." But whenever I have met Brown, since taking up this job, he has always berated me along these lines: "The New Statesman should write more about poverty and the underclass in Britain." I have wanted to talk about the euro, relations with Blair and his leadership ambitions. He has wanted to talk about poverty. Part of Blair and Brown's purpose is to attack the level of poverty. In order to attack it more effectively they seek economic stability. Nor is this presentational waffle from Brown and others, as those who are obsessed with "spin" probably think.

I was struck by the clarity of Brown's objectives soon after the election, at a time when the rest of the government seemed in total disarray over welfare reform. Early in 1998, when Harriet Harman was fighting Frank Field and welfare-reform cabinet committees proliferated, Brown outlined to me the three aims: encouraging people to work, making work pay and increasing the payments to those "incapable" of work. Since then there has been a cascade of policies relating to these objectives. None of them could be described as "revolutionary", but they do "make a difference"- to borrow a more realistic phrase from a wildly varying rhetorical repertoire.

Some of Labour's traditional supporters have noticed little difference, however. There are all kinds of reasons for the discontent, which have been explored at length ever since Peter Hain told me that the government was being "gratuitously offensive" to its core vote. Blair has shown he recognises that there is a problem. In his speech to the TUC, most of which he wrote himself on the day, Blair warned repeatedly that not voting for Labour would only help the Conservatives. Such a passive protest would not, he suggested, produce a more left-wing Labour government.

The same message will be given next week, along with a list of policies and an outline of an economic situation that other Labour governments could only dream about. Even so, amid the upbeat mood in Bournemouth, one question should give government strategists some pause for further thought. If I had been sitting on a sofa early on Sunday morning with a Labour activist in Bootle, watching the Gordon Brown interview, would he or she have enthused as much as my friend from the Tory party?