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Brown battles down critics

After a tough week in which the Conservatives through threw every pensions weapon they had at the Chancellor, Gordon Brown seems to have come through as well as he could have wished after a storming Commons performance and strong backbench support.

The Tories tabled a symbolic vote of no confidence in an Opposition Day debate, still revelling in the disclosure of the warnings Brown got from Treasury officials about the effect his raid on pension would have.

Osborne called on the Chancellor to follow in the steps of the other Browne in the cabinet- Defence Secretary Des Browne- and apologise for the damage the raid has done to pensions.

The saga is the perfect tale for the Tories to exploit- it shows Brown as a control freak, unwilling to listen to expert advice, operating with stealth and leaves question marks over his economic competency.

There was speculation over whether Brown would show up to face down his critics but he was there ready to take on all the Tory attacks and respond with more than a few of his own.

The fact he showed up and, in his own words, “relished” the debate indicates the strength of his worries over the damage the issue has done to his personal standing and the importance of getting out his own arguments for scrapping the relief.

Brown told MPs he would do the same thing again in the long term interests of the economy and went as far as suggesting that scrapping the tax relief was a significant factor in the short lived rise in stockmarkets post 1997.

Former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke helpfully pointed out that this rise probably had a little more to do with the dot.com boom than Brown’s meddling.

But overall Brown performed well, backed up by an impressively choreographed counter offensive from backbenchers including Treasury select committee chairman John McFall who branded Tory arguments “hullabaloo and hypocrisy”.

After brushing aside Tuesday’s motion of no confidence another pensions hurdle lay in wait for the Government on Wednesday as the Pensions Bill returned to the Commons after the Committee stage.

Cross-party amendments were put down in an attempt to top-up the payouts of victims of whose occupational schemes collapsed before the PPF was set up and ensure these people get help quicker.

It was always going to be a massive uphill struggle to defeat the Government, especially considering the timing and sensitivity of the debate.

Pensions minister James Purnell also gave more concessions which he says will help a further 8,000 people and promised a review, led by industry experts, into providing more support.

The amendments were defeated by 22, with 15 Labour MPs voting for them, although the Tories and LibDems have promised the Bill will get a rough ride in the Lords.

Elsewhere, the FSA gave a timely warning that the UK sub-prime sector could go the same way as the troubled US market unless the sector tightens up its lending criteria.

FSA managing director of retail markets Clive Briault told the Council of Mortgage Lenders lunch that although the two markets are different, there are worrying signs the sub-prime crisis could cross the Atlantic unless action is taken.

The regulator is currently investigating the sub-prime sector amid fears consumers are borrowing too much and poor advice is being given and Briault’s warning will leave the industry in no doubt the FSA has the appetite to crack down hard in this area if failings are discovered.

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