Opinion: It's (still) the economy, stupid

This week's Budget was the official launch of the election campaign. But which one, Gordon Brown's or the general election?

The cynical view that the Chancellor is only interested in his succession to Tony Blair's throne is one held only by those who either don't know him or dislike him. It is an easy accusation to make. What was Brown doing in Africa and China when there's an election back home to be won?

In fact, the foreign trips were set up more than a year ago and agreed with the Prime Minister. No, the only reason there is silly gossip against 'the most successful chancellor for 100 years' (Blair's claim) is because Blair replaced him as campaign co-ordinator with the hapless Alan Milburn.

I can't recall an election strategist getting as much negative criticism as the former health secretary. Indeed, if Milburn wasn't so arrogant and pompous I might feel sorry for him. The rumour is that Labour's campaign has been so poor that Blair will dump Milburn and bring back Brown - a sensational U-turn but a sensible one.

Already Milburn is taking a less active role and, incredibly, didn't even bother to attend the party's Scottish conference earlier this month.

Brown is still Labour's trump card. Right now I wouldn't want to be an economic forecaster. Every single one of them predicted gloom and doom and the Chancellor missing his forecasts by a mile. But Brown has been proved right once again. With a stronger economy and bigger tax revenues than everyone except the Chancellor predicted, Labour will go into the election boasting about its competence in running the economy.

As Blair told the party faithful in Dundee, this is the single most important reason why New Labour has been so successful.

With the Tories mounting a more than decent campaign, in particular making the running on the NHS and immigration, the economy is the one area in which Labour can't afford to lose the PR battle. So far the latter has been light years ahead.

In pre-Budget week, all shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin could muster was a scare about Labour wanting to rake in more tax from house sales. At first I thought it may have been Treasury-inspired. The problem with this one though was that it just wasn't believable.

It would be daft to suggest that Brown didn't have one eye on his own political future this week, but he knows that future depends on a thumping Labour election victory. His Budget has laid the foundation for that win.

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