- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

LONDON Tax increases, the traditional bane of politicians, have made Gordon Brown Britain's most popular treasury secretary in a quarter of a century and a power to be reckoned with in any contest for the nation's top political job, a new public opinion poll shows.

When Mr. Brown formally called the chancellor of the exchequer announced he was increasing direct taxation by a whopping $12 billion, it surprised the nation. The chancellor himself conceded it was a huge "political gamble."

The proposal, included in Britain's annual budget for next year, still has to be approved by Parliament.

But so far, the early returns from public opinion polls are in, and they show Mr. Brown is winning his bet, at least for now.

A survey by the MORI polling organization indicated that two-thirds of the British public believes Mr. Brown's tax-and-spend package is the best budget the country has seen since 1977.

Mr. Brown wants much of the money for a massive $57 billion increase in funding over the next five years for Britain's ailing National Health Service. The service has faced growing criticism over waiting lists that are 15 months long, a chronic shortage of beds and a migration of doctors and nurses to foreign lands in quest of better pay.

Mr. Brown tacked a 1 percent increase in contributions to national insurance Britain's version of social security in a clear U-turn to the Labor government's promise when it regained power five years ago that there would be no increases in direct taxation.

Big businesses squawked. So did opposition politicians, who saw in the move a return to the "tax-and-spend" policies that proved so ruinous to other British governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

The voting public had a different view. The Financial Times newspaper, which commissioned the MORI poll, said the survey showed that 65 percent of people "thought the budget was good for the country as a whole," compared with only 20 percent who thought it a bad thing.

"The ratings confirm Mr. Brown's status as the most popular chancellor of the exchequer of any party since the mid-1970s," the newspaper said.

Mr. Brown's "political gamble" is that the billions of tax dollars will pay off in a vastly improved health service that can attend the needs of a nation of nearly 60 million citizens without having to send them off to hospitals in France, South Africa and elsewhere for treatment.

If Mr. Brown wins his bet, he will be a leading candidate to become Britain's next prime minister. The next general election is expected in 2005, and rumors are already rife that Prime Minister Tony Blair expects to win a third term and then fairly quickly step down.

The MORI poll, the Financial Times said, already "shows Mr. Brown is more popular than Tony Blair, heightening speculation that he could succeed the prime minister" if his tax-for-health package produces a healthy NHS by the 2005 election.

It has been just a week since Mr. Brown took his "political gamble." Whether three years or so is enough time for him to win remains to be seen.

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