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Friday, 23 March 2007

23 March 2007

If you’ve been reading these newsletters for more than a year (and thank you for your loyalty if you have been), you may remember that this time last year I made a shameful personal admission.

This is what I wrote: “I hate Budget Days. Always have. Always will. I hate the endless drone of the Chancellor’s voice. I hate the long lists of meaningless figures; 10 billion here, 20 billion there. Inflation this, growth that. I hate the fake excitement of a fake ritual. I hate having to pretend that the whole farrago of Westminster wind-baggery actually means something.”

Twelve months later, having sat through the 11th (ye Gods, the 11th?) Gordon Brown budget speech, do I still feel the same? Guilty, your honour. Yes, it’s true, he smiled a couple of times. And he cracked a couple of jokes. And he pulled a 2p-size white rabbit out of his hat with impressive panache. Look at this, he said, T Blair isn’t the only showman in town.

But go to the handy ready reckoner on the BBC News website , and you’ll almost certainly discover that at the end of it all, you’re no more than a few pounds better or worse off than before the chancellor rose to his feet. So what was the point?

Ah, but politics is also theatre, is it not? It’s about performance, and intellectual agility, and the art of leadership. When I saw the evening paper billboards (“Brown cuts tax rate”), I knew that the chancellor would sleep that night (eight-month-old baby son permitting) with a beatific smile on his face.

And it was interesting, wasn’t it, how on the Today programme yesterday morning, he no longer protested at the suggestion that he would soon be Prime Minister. The pretence, the false modesty ("aw, shucks, me? Prime Minister? But John, I’m just thrilled to have been number 2 to Tony for the past decade") has been dropped. Now he talks openly about why he’s convinced he can do the job. The transition is already well under way. And my hunch is that this week’s Budget makes it even less likely that he’ll face a heavyweight challenger. (Mind you, a modest wager on Charles Clarke might be fun.)

Meanwhile, dust down your political lexicon and look up “executive privilege”. Across the pond, in Washington, the US Congress and the White House are squaring up for a juicy little constitutional battle over whether some of President Bush’s top aides should be forced to testify at Congressional hearings into why eight federal prosecutors were fired. We’ve been here before of course: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky. But those mid-term elections last November, when the Democrats won control of Congress, have certainly changed the political weather in Washington.

All US presidents jealously guard their “executive privilege” – the theory that the separation of powers embodied in the US constitution implies that each of the three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary) should operate with some degree of freedom from the control or supervision of the others. But even if Mr Bush successfully resists the demands from Congress, the battle does look likely to weaken him further.

It’s now 11 days since our colleague Alan Johnston disappeared in Gaza and there is still no word of his whereabouts. Please keep him in your thoughts – and do read this moving open letter to him by Bassam Nasser of the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.

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