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Carol Grant

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Brown's still got his bottle

Am I the only person to feel strangely unmoved by all this talk of Gordon Brown's vulnerability now he has decided not to call an election? He was riding high after the Labour conference. I went on holiday, and by the time I returned he was, apparently, in hand-wringing mode the media claims he had himself to blame for the headlines about losing his 'bottle' what a very macho word.

Those close to the prime minister were spinning the prospect of an election with great gusto, say the political correspondents. But I think the media doth protest too much. Journalists hated Tony Blair and were absurdly grateful to Mr Brown for giving them good copy over a traditionally quiet summer during the crises of terror attacks, foot and mouth and floods.

The media stoked the Brown bounce just as enthusiastically as Labour MPs. Come the autumn, a hangover descended as the political correspondents made their way north from sunnyBournemouthto gloomyBlackpool. Would the prime minister still respect them in the morning? Wasn't it time to regain a suitable distance from the government of the day? Let's not forget that Mr Brown is a supreme political operator. I loved his masterstroke of inviting Baroness Thatcher to tea on the day the Conservatives unveiled their report on the environment. I hadn't been so happy to see the Iron Lady at the door of Number 10 since the day she was forced out of it by her former colleagues in 1990.

Baroness Thatcher is reported to have once said: "Never make a decision before you have to." This is advice that Brown followed to the letter. The Conservatives had been on the ropes for weeks, so it was inevitable that they were going to pull a few tax-cutting wheezes out of the hat inBlackpoolto get a boost in the polls. Zac Goldsmith may well be a pin-up for well-heeled eco groupies, but his environmental proposals weren't exactly vote winners with those people who think that plasma screen TVs, foreign holidays and free parking at shopping centres are signs of a better life.

I'd already written off Mr Goldsmith's proposals when I saw in an interview that he hadn't even read John Redwood's report from the Conservatives' economic policy group. So much for joined-up thinking. With the re-emergence of Thatcher and Redwood now giving me a warm glow, perhaps I need some kind of therapy.

Bringing forward the comprehensive spending review was a win-win move. If there had been an election, it would have served as a preview of the manifesto. And since there won't be one, Mr Brown and Alistair Darling were able to snatch all the populist measures floated by the Conservatives in Blackpool and neatly slot them into a vision for the remainder of his term.

Entertaining politics then, but the period between now and the next election will be a difficult one for local government. The financial settlement is tough. Efficiency is the name of the game. Pay restraint is getting tighter.

Any fundamental change to the balance of funding has now been kicked beyond the next election, so councils will have to manage increased demand, particularly for services such as social care, within the existing, creaking system. Interestingly, lobbyists on social care tell me there was far more interest in the topic at the Labour conference than at the Conservative one.

Local Government Association chairman Sir Simon Milton has called the settlement the worst for 10 years. He has also highlighted that over the life of the CSR, another 400,000 people will turn 65. Not all of these will need social care of course. On current profiles, some of them will
be the councillors trying to balance the budget.

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