Brown hints at big assets sale plan to ease the pain of cuts – but why not spell it out?

Remember how the real story of Gordon Brown’s budgets was often buried in the Red Book? So, amazingly,the real story of Labour’s manifesto day may be written in an obscure newspaper article by the chairman of an insurance company. Labour’s manifesto launch in a brand new Birmingham hospital was cheesy and flat, an uneasy mix of Labour rally and news conference. The political editors were booed by the faithful – not a good start. Sky’s Adam Boulton made the unwelcome point that the hospital was costing £600m to build and equip but will cost the taxpayer £2.5bn under PFI. After blustering hsi way through that, Brown gave us two significant soundbites:

Our plans are costed no the basis of not raising VAT. The Conservative plans cannot be understood without raising VAT
Every single penny that has gone to help the banks will be returned to the people of this country.

It was responsible to put so little in the goody bag and even good politics. Just a rise of the national minimum wage, ” a living wage” guarantee for the lowest paid public sector workers and a toddler’s tax break. But it was the BBC’s Nick Robinson who raised “ the elephant in the room” – the complete absence of a word about cuts, what services would have to be withdrawn.. It took a prompt from C4 News’s Gary Gibbon to drag out of Brown what is the half hidden story of the day that may balloon into something big – that Brown wants to pay back a lot of the debt by selling off as much as possible of the state property assets and make “realistic” public efficiencies over the next few years. The way he chose to break this must be uniquely awkward for election campaign . He referred us to a recent article in the Financial Times by Gerry Grimstone the chairman of Standard Life and a Treasury adviser. If Brown wants to suggest that efficiencies and asset sales can limit the impact of cuts on services, why be so coy about it?
From Gerry Grimstone’s article

I am pleased that the programme’s recommendations were accepted in full and are being used to help deliver a planned extra £15bn of efficiency savings in 2010-2011

We could perhaps save about £4bn per year through various structural reforms. It will not be easy or quick. One of our plans is to create public service companies, which we believe will provide the biggest improvement in efficiency. This cannot happen overnight. If it could it would, of course, have been done already.

Ambitious plans have also been drawn up as to how to manage property in the public sector and to make sure that the government does not own any more than it needs.

The value of the UK public sector estate is about £370bn – equivalent to £6,000 of property assets for every UK resident. I have always believed we should put that estate to work for the public benefit. We have already set in train plans to use a variety of corporate vehicles to unleash these savings. But unless we are in the business of giving taxpayers’ money away, we must wait until the property market is right, and for leases to come up for renewal, in order to deliver savings without this actually wasting public money

Does Labour think they can get away without serious front line cuts? It’s the impression Brown seemed to want to leave us with. We’ll see how it stands up during the campaign.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London