Alistair Darling

So much for an end to class warfare in British politics. At this morning’s press conference the Labour trio (Mandelson, Balls, Burnham) insisted they were not in the business of negative campaigning, despite evidence to the contrary.* Read more

Lord Mandelson has just described the manifesto as “Blair plus”. But how radical is it? We have trawled through the document (70 pages of it) and have found a few new policies and a few old ones dressed up to look new. Read more

I ran into a Tory frontbencher about a week ago who said he had had been asked to go through his department with a fine toothcomb to find potential savings which could be made after the general election.

I asked if he had seen John Redwood’s blog suggesting that cuts of 10 per cent could be instigated without too much pain. He replied that he had got close to that number without too much difficulty.

We didn’t write it up as a news story because it seemed like an obvious and sensible thing for the Conservatives to be doing.

The FT house view is that politicians would be better off coming clean about the deficit – and need for sweeping departmental cuts – rather than dancing around on the head of a national insurance pin. In private, Labour and the Tories alike must be drawing up the slide rule over which programmes, benefits or salary bills to cut and when: surely?

Don’t expect the manifesto from either party to recognise this, however. The troops are still in their trenches; the real fiscal war hasn’t happened yet. Read more

Just picked up a first edition of The Observer and it’s leading with Nick Clegg warning that Britain faces “serious social strife” if a government without a popular mandate starts wielding the public spending axe.

It’s certainly a novel twist on the standard arguments about a hung parliament. Clegg’s pitch is basically that a minority government would be good for the country because it better represents the split of the popular vote.

A narrow victory for the Tories or Labour would wreak havoc because they would be sacking public sector workers, slashing programmes and freezing wages after having secured as little as a quarter of eligible votes. Read more

Unless you read the financial pages you may not be aware of Corporate Britain’s latest eye-catching payout: a £92m remuneration package for Bert Becht (not to be confused with Bertold Brecht). He is the chief executive of Reckitt Beneckiser, which makes products such as Vanish and Dettol.

To be fair, Becht has set up a charitable foundation to which he has given more than £100m. Even so; isn’t there an issue with this kind of payout just months after the credit crunch?

Vince Cable told me last night this was “extraordinary” and “unbelievable” and showed the often painful differential between the highest and lowest-paid workers. Read more

Lord Mandelson is in charge of the Labour election campaign but, in reality, he has little choice but to work to Ed Balls’ playbook. The truth is that when the Tories promised to reverse part of the National Insurance tax rise, it turned this election into a big test of the Balls vision of British politics.

The origins of this lie in the November Pre-Budget Report, which set the cornerstone of the Labour message. Spending on schools went up in real terms, a great triumph for Balls at a time public sector cuts. The downside was that National Insurance had to rise. Read more

In a sense Labour has been hoist by its own petard: in 1997 it secured a letter signed by numerous eminent businessmen praising its policies – and thus underlining its electability.

Now, a similar letter from 23 leading company executives threatens to do the exact reverse by criticising Labour policy just weeks before the general election. Executives from industry and the City like to back winners. (And while some of these are Tory donors, most are not).

This time the executives are backing the Conservative plan to partially reverse next year’s National Insurance increase, at the cost of about £5bn (found through efficiency savings across Whitehall).

At first glance the letter does appear to be a bombshell – and has certainly been written up in this way across the media. As George Osborne said: “This is proving to be a significant day. Gordon Brown now finds himself at war with business.”

But don’t be fooled, however, by any suggestion that the letter, now backed by the CBI, Institute of Directors, and British Chamber of Commerce, is not born of self-interest. Read more

The Brown team assembled today for the last full cabinet photo before the election. Two ministers were notably absent: Alistair Darling and David Miliband. They both had good excuses. But somehow it seems fitting. Was this as close as Brown will ever get to his fantasy cabinet? You have to wonder whether Ed Balls assumed the chancellor’s place. Smiles everyone!

Blair is looking even more orange than usual, and rather thin around the face. Maybe it is the bright red “A future fair for all” Labour wallpaper behind him. Rhetorically he hasn’t changed much: still lots of pregnant pauses and persuasive hand movements. Read more

9pm (JP) Scheduled against Eastenders and Coronation Street, this was always going to be a warm-up to the main event; the leaders’ debates. But instructive nevertheless. A big thanks here to Ian Mulheirn from the Social Market Foundation for providing intellectual ballast. (He moved house only yesterday and may have some apologies to make when he arrives home. Heroic).

8.58pm (AB) It’s all over. A lively if completely unenlightening debate. Who would have thought there was an election on? In picking a winner, it is always worth remembering that it is not relative performance that is important. It’s about what the public thought of you before the debate — and whether that changes. Darling made no big mistakes. There were a couple of decent gags and some flashes of passion, which may have surprised some viewers. Osborne stood his ground and certainly looked calm. The negative side was that he made little of the National Insurance announcement and sometimes looked like he was being ganged up on. Cable threw and landed the most punches. But the fact the other two didnt even bother to discuss Lib Dem policy was telling.

8.55pm (AB) Some thoughts from Chris Cook, a star FT leader writer:

Vince is winning, so far, cementing his place as the cabbie’s favourite politician. Smashed MPs and bankers in his intro minute, and clobbered Osborne over the (beserk-in-a-recession) IHT cut.

8.53pm (JP). They are wrapping up. Darling boasts (sotto voce) about having made the right calls. Job opportunities are the main thing, he says. Vince says “who can you trust?”. Labour led Britain into “this mess” and wasted money on over-centralised public services, argues Cable. He doesn’t like the Tories either. “Now they want another chance to get their noses in the trough and reward their rich backers.” St Vince isn’t being so saintly right now. Don’t hold back chap. Last but not least, Osborne is summing up. He points out, rightly, that Labour has been in power for 13 years. “They took one of the strongest economies in Europe and now we have one of the weakest.” It’s a powerful argument. You only have one chance to get Labour out, he says. Read more

Clearly the Conservatives felt the need for a new, more positive policy and have come up with the old Tory favourite: a tax cut. George Osborne has just spelled out a pledge to partially reverse a 1 per cent rise in national insurance due to take place in one year’s time. It is likely to be welcomed by some business groups. Read more

I’ve just had a freedom of information request back from the Cabinet Office giving me the dates of Tony Blair’s visits to Downing Street since he quit in June 2007. Read more

The Tories are likely to go on the attack tomorrow morning on the freezing of the income tax allowance. This isn’t new, of course; it was in the pre-budget report.

However, the personal allowance for anyone under 65 will remain frozen at £6,475. In other words, if you’re income is rising, you will pay – proportionately – more tax. Read more

It’s just that I tried the site second ago.

And it had this response: Read more

It is perhaps telling that there were no big, last-minute fights over the content of this reassuringly dull Budget. The bulk of it was wrapped up more than a week ago.

Given December’s Pre-Budget report was still being negotiated in the early hours of the morning, this is quite a feat. This time Ed Balls’ emissaries weren’t on the phone at 3am arguing about the GDP deflator. Darling and his team managed to get some sleep, which is not something chancellors on Budget day are used to. Read more

As delivered by Alistair Darling on March 24. With “Mr Deputy Speaker” removed. Click on the image to see in full.

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As I predicted this morning, the stamp duty holiday for first time buyers up to £250,000 has come with a major “sting” – an increase on the levy for people exchanging £1m-plus homes. Read more

Chancellor sits down at 13.30 – FTSE 100 unchanged at 5,673.26. Sterling is down 0.75 per cent at $1.4920 and the yield on the 10-year gilt is up 3.1 basis points at 3.94 per cent.

Please see for all the news and analysis of the Budget – thanks for joining us. Read more

Labour have had a lot of fun at the Tories’ expense by mocking the idea that Britain is heading for a long period of austerity. But austere is exactly what Wednesday’s Budget is shaping up to be; short on the usual frills, promises, gimmicks and baubles that typify such events in the recent past. As Darling himself pointed out yesterday; no Christmas trees.

Darling is likely to stop short of spelling out the tough overall departmental spending cuts which will take place from 2011, but he will at least offer some insights into £11bn of “efficiency savings” already promised by the government. Read more

Outright criticism of the prime minister is not really Alistair Darling’s style. He prefers the raised eyebrow, the flat understatement. But you don’t have to be a Kremlinologist to get the message in this exchange from today’s Andrew Marr Show: It’s pretty loud and clear. Read more