A Budget that tilts us to the left

This really is as good as it gets. Gordon Brown's four-year stewardship of the economy, culminating in last Wednesday's Budget, is as close as we're likely to come in these times to a socialist programme. Not that - on the surface, at least - it resembled anything like a socialist Budget. Nor was it an electioneering Budget. Giving every taxpayer an extra £36 a year, when he's sitting on a £23bn surplus, is hardly splurging. No one can accuse our Gordon of bribing the electorate.

A modern Budget is a multicoloured whirlwind of wheezes and fiddles, designed to grab headlines, buy off interest groups - alcoholics and gamblers this year - and secure grunts of approval where it matters, in newspaper editorial conferences and from the pundits on the telly. The bigger picture of what, if anything, a chancellor is up to emerges more slowly and distinctly, over months and years.

That picture is clearer today. Since he began his tenure at No 11, Gordon Brown has diverted substantial sums to the people near the bottom of life's pile - his latest Budget has done still more for his target group: poor families. The national press may whinge about stealthy tax rises but they have barely noticed the effects: the number of children in poverty has fallen by more than a third under Labour.

Never before has a Budget been as focused on women and children as this one. There are good electoral reasons for that. As this column has pointed out, the younger women who played a big part in Labour's 1997 landslide have been drifting away lately; Brown needs to lure them with better maternity - and paternity - deals, children's credit and the working families tax credit. But hitting poverty by helping poor children has been a big part of Brown's moral agenda, too.

Who has paid for it all? Business has - from the utilities hit by the windfall tax early on, to the current victims of Brown's tighter corporate tax regime. So have the better-off, including homebuyers, though rarely directly. Thanks to steady growth, he has not had to impose a Denis Healey-style, pip-squeaking squeeze. Instead, he has been able to use the rising tax incomes for his social agenda. This is the real difference with the Tories. They would follow George W Bush in a wide-ranging refund of money to British taxpayers. Brown, knowing well which folk most benefit from that, will not.

This big picture ought to have the rich up in arms, and the left delighted - but it hasn't happened yet. Brown has neither suffered the political blame (from business) nor won the credit (from Labour people) that his policies deserve.

The reasons are obvious. People, ridiculously, have been listening to what he says. Business and right-wing voters hear his talk about red tape, the market, cracking down on benefit fraud, lower corporation taxes, making work pay . . . and they think, "hey, here's one of our guys" - a Scottish lefty in his youth, but now as tough as they come. Meanwhile, the left hears the constant refrain of "prudence", still unforgivingly remembers those first two years of spending restraint . . . and they think, "Huh, he's just another turncoat".

This has been a four-year dust storm, designed by Brown and his Treasury team to allow Labour to carry out its historic task without being rejected by the middle-class English who make up the majority of the electorate in Britain's swing seats. It has been fantastically successful so far. But it cannot go on for much longer.

Here are three reasons why not. First, at long last, people are noticing the higher tax take. Last year's fuel tax revolt was a moment when the electorate showed its fed-upness with indirect taxes. William Hague found a story when he compared the Chancellor to a man who pinches your car and expects thanks for bringing back the hubcap the next day. Better-off voters will look across the Atlantic and say, "We want our money back, too."

Second, although Brown seems genuinely committed to higher productivity and a stronger business economy, his style is meddlesome. The fairness agenda, the micromanaged tax changes and the climate change levy are hated by business people. The Treasury might help by simply shutting up at times and doing a little less. But that is not Brown's way.

Finally, these have been clever, if cautious, redistributionist Budgets for the good times. Like shares, all economies dip. When that happens, Brown will have to tax more directly, incurring the anger of Middle Britain, or cut his spending plans. What he is trying to do now is to race through the next three years with spending higher than overall growth, hoping he isn't caught short by a sudden downturn. We, too, all hope he makes it, but this will really give him cause to gnaw those nails.

What no one knows yet is whether we really are becoming a slightly more leftish country, ready to accept a higher overall tax take in order to sort out our rotten public services and crumbling infrastructure. Brown, in this Budget, has made it clearer than ever before that the country faces a choice, and he for one knows which side of the fence he's on. It may be that people do finally understand what Gordon Brown is up to. They know he is a traditionalist, a taxer and a meddler, and hear the Tory message about tax rises loud and clear . . . but have decided to stick with him because of all that, not despite it.

This is what Hague's shadow cabinet really dreads. It makes for the crossed fingers behind all of Labour's self-confident talk. For what it's worth, it is what the polls also suggest. Not a lurch to the left, but a definite tilt. And if that is happening, Gordon Brown will seem an even bigger, more confident figure in the second term than he does today. He could start to say in even plainer English what he is up to. Imagine! The new Budget was interesting enough, and clever, too. But frank, unashamed social democracy - that's still the real prize.