Opinion: Darling proves smart with car tax tester

Alistair Darling is one of the most intelligent members of the Labour cabinet and handled the launch of a radical new car policy with aplomb this week. The Transport Secretary knows very well that in politics it is always wise to float radical ideas years ahead just to see how they will play in the media. The Sunday papers are ideal for this ploy because if the story is interesting enough it is guaranteed to be picked up on Monday, thus getting two days of coverage for the price of one.

But even Darling will have been surprised by the extensive coverage his few words with a Sunday paper generated, even if some papers poured scorn on his ideas. The most predictable splash - 'War on middle-class drivers' will have left most Daily Mail readers - if indeed they had seen the previous night's TV news bulletins - wondering if their paper was covering the same story. Given that it is the middle classes that are the predominant users of the hugely subsidised rail network, it was a strange line to take. The Sun was more in touch with its readers, pointing out that those hit hardest would be those least able to afford it. The Daily Telegraph, as usual with no sense of irony, cried: 'Why didn't the Government draw attention to this during the election campaign?'

But this was a successful PR exercise because only the usual suspects were critical. The Transport Secretary wisely talked about building a consensus and although the opposition parties were sceptical they were not overly negative. The truth is the Government is this cautious on car policy because it got so badly burnt over the fuel crisis. That happened because ministers never have to fill up their cars with petrol. Ken Livingstone's success with the congestion charge has shown them that while the public hates fuel tax, people are willing to consider radical ideas. Abolishing the car tax altogether is just one such idea that Darling suggested.

However, we should remember that there are actually very few new ideas, just new presentations of policy. Jim Callaghan blocked the last attempt to axe the tax because of consequent job losses at the licensing centre in Swansea. And I know Gordon Brown looked at it but was knocked back by mandarins who insisted car tax was needed to keep records of car ownership - nonsense of course.

The most interesting aspect of the road-pricing debate, though, is that it is not taking place in Parliament. Tony Blair once promised the end of spin, but as we have seen this week it's still an effective policy tool.

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