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Brown's Debt Culture (jeff Randall In The Telegraph)


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As our debts pile up, it's too late for Brown to get out in time

By Jeff Randall

A culture of bullying and harassment is driving staff out of Gordon Brown's Treasury, according to a report by the aptly named consultancy, Talent Drain. As disaffected civil servants emerge from the Chancellor's dungeons, blinking in the Whitehall light, they'll discover an unfortunate truth. For millions of hard-working people, it's just as bad out here as it is inside Gordon's grotto.

Of those quitting the Treasury, nearly one third cited "low morale". Hey, welcome to Brown's world. Come walk a mile in our shoes. The Chancellor has been bullying and harassing decent taxpayers for 10 years. While you Treasury chaps have been helping Mr Brown churn out new rules, regulations, red tape, benefits, handouts and subsidies, with Stakhanovite efficiency, the rest of us have been toiling to make sense of it all and pay for his budgetary incontinence.

The survey reveals that two thirds of Treasury staff quit within two years of joining. Millions of other over-burdened souls would dearly love to leave behind the Clunking Fist so easily.

advertisementIn his early days at Number 11, Mr Brown rightly observed that there are two types of chancellor: "Those who fail and those who get out in time." He invited us to infer that he'd know when to go. Many of us thought that he'd crack it. We were wrong. As the longest-serving chancellor of the modern era, Mr Brown has left it too late — far too late — to escape the flames of public opprobrium. Incendiary facts are now burning through his record. He's not going to get out in time. And neither are we.

Mr Brown's style is to control all levers of power. This means micro-managing every detail. It would be no surprise to learn that he chose the colour of the Treasury's lavatory paper. Unfortunately for Mr Brown, the one thing he can't control is the timing of his ascent to Number 10. That's in the gift of the second-hand car dealer, next door to whom he has been living since 1997. By the time Tony Blair finally allows the Chancellor to become Prime Minister, Mr Brown will already be the Prime Suspect. His alleged crime? Trading under false pretences as a successful keeper of the country's coffers.

What the Chancellor has done to our economy is mirrored by the behaviour of many Britons who have been encouraged to live well beyond their means. Debt — mountains of it — has underpinned Mr Brown's growth story. Any fool can over-borrow and live, briefly, a fantasy existence. Indeed, in today's consume-now, pay-later culture, many fools do. That includes Mr Brown. Debt is the new junk food. We know that an overdose is bad for us, but we're lovin' it.

Dreamers acquire s*****y houses, drive luxury cars and take exotic holidays — all on credit. They have it large. For a while these big spenders impress others, and perhaps themselves, that they're living like millionaires. Chancellors, too, are seduced by the feel-good factor. The wine flows, the music plays and the dancing goes on for ever. Except that it doesn't. Last year, more than 100,000 Britons became insolvent. Rising interest rates, rising unemployment, rising taxes and rising fuel bills shattered the illusion. Bailiffs gatecrashed the party. At least as many people, probably more, will go bust this year.

Brown's Britain is in a similar position. He is borrowing upwards of £35 billion a year to keep the show on the road. He has blown our savings on unreformed public services. Last year, he spent £169 billion on health and education alone. Yet hospitals are closing and nurses are being sacked. In our schools, once you strip out the fiddled examination results, it's clear that standards of literacy and numeracy remain shamefully low.

Mr Brown's growth "miracle" — 38 consecutive quarters of expansion — is nothing of the sort. It has been manufactured by a public spending binge that will inevitably end in tears, because the Chancellor is running out of money.

He boasts about soaring employment, but the increase in jobs is largely accounted for by a ballooning state payroll. From 1991 to 1998, public-sector employment fell every year, with an overall reduction of 816,000. Since Mr Brown decided to create a client class of state-funded workers (with mink-lined pensions), public-sector employment has grown like a Russian vine. By June 2005, there were 680,000 more public-sector jobs than before Labour was elected. This helps explain Britain's poor productivity performance: all those diversity officers (the BBC's is paid about £90,000 a year) make a lot of noise, but not much else.

The late, great Lord Weinstock told me that when he saw a company's profits rising, but cash balances falling, he had learnt "to become suspicious". We should be equally sceptical about an economy that, after 10 years of apparent boom, is mired in personal and public debt.

If we can't reduce borrowings when, allegedly, we've never had it so good, what chance of balancing the books when bad times arrive? If this is prosperity, where has all the money gone? Answer: funding low-productivity activity. So desperate is Mr Brown to hoover up private assets to pay for public excess that he raids our pension funds for more than £5 billion a year. At the same time, his Byzantine benefits system is over-paying claimants by about £1 billion a year. It's his very own version of Gresham's Law: bad money drives out good.

In terms of reputation, Mr Brown will soon join the growing list of bankrupts — Mr Blair, the empty suit, will see to that. The Prime Minister has, in effect, what the City calls "a put option" on his Chancellor. He knows that, the longer he hangs on, the worse the British economy becomes. Mr Blair will hand over the keys at the point of maximum pain for Mr Brown. Professor David Smith of Derby University, a former City economist, says that Mr Brown will face "the worst structural fiscal deficit of any incoming prime minister since 1979 or possibly 1974, but has only himself to blame".

Amidst this financial carnage, what are the Conservatives doing? Not a lot. They're too busy wittering on about stability, as if promising to maintain Labour's fiscal imbalances is somehow evidence of a responsible future government.

Very rarely, perhaps once in a decade, an opposition party is presented with an open goal of such magnitude that it would be politically negligent not to score. That moment has arrived. Mr Brown's plundering of our private pensions has no worthwhile support beyond the Treasury. Not in the North or South, among Left or Right, rich or poor. Nobody in their right mind thinks it's a good idea to wreck a retirement system that was once the envy of less fortunate nations.

So, George Osborne, shadow chancellor, the goal is wide open. Even a one-legged man in a ballet shoe could smash the ball in the net. Why don't you promise that, given the chance, the Tories would stop the robbing of our pensioners?

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