opinion: POLITICS

Not a dull summer by any means. Not when there are wall-to-wall spies for Cold War nostalgics; when one historic political party gets a new and ginger leader and another one gets sight of a leader-in-waiting returning to Westminster after a voter-imposed rest. Not when Gordon Brown emerges from his August break flush with tax revenues, either.

I'm not convinced that Michael Portillo's unusual case of whistle-blowing on himself puts him in the clear with voters, and not just because Peter Tatchell of Outrage rang me to say he plans to disrupt the ex-defence secretary's courtship of Kensington and Chelsea Tories. His might not be the only perspective on the affair which views Mr Portillo's calculated revelations as less than frank, especially in the light of his anti-gay stance when still a minister.

More relevant to the healthcare story in the months ahead was Mr Brown's revelation that, far from facing a£4.5bn spending deficit this year - as economic growth cyclically dips - unemployment is now so low (at 2.12 million, a 19-year low) that he's set for a£5bn surplus.

Why? Simple. More taxes, fewer benefit payments. In other words, we seem to have avoided a recession in 1999. As the Telegraph editorial noted, a less serious chancellor might have yelled 'Yabbadabbadoo'. Mr Brown muttered something about his old friend Prudence, leaving his other friend Tony to hint to the TUC that Gordon might be persuaded to part with a few bob.

'We can afford to spend wisely and sustain the spending,' the PM said in Brighton, though before Mr Brown revealed his secret in New York, which he did just as the Brothers were packing their bags in Brighton. Not a coincidence. It didn't stop Rodney Bickerstaffe and his mates (did you notice the teachers' leaders making common cause with nurses?) from instantly saying: 'We want some dosh.' Nor did it stop the Telegraph lecturing Brown on the need to hold public sector pay below 2 per cent and cut taxes.

From a paper that predicted a recession in 1999, that's cheek. Will Brown take its advice? No. He's a natural taxer, whose mission is not just to create wealth but to end poverty. That means taxing and redistributing the proceeds without upsetting the Daily Mail. It means using the word 'levy' not 'tax' whenever possible. So successful is the sly rascal that my old colleague and predecessor in this column, Ian Aitken, is always upbraiding the chancellor for failing in his socialist duty.

My theory is that Gordon is a craftier politician than Ian, who is so busy enjoying his bus pass he doesn't notice cunning Treasury raids on his pension funds.

Mr Brown may cut the taxes that everyone notices, but it goes against his instincts. I chatted with leading members of the steel industry the other evening, and they were as cross as that junior hospital doctor who wrote to the Mirror about his 23-hour working day.

They may not work quite so hard (we were on a golf course), but they have turned round the once-rickety steel industry - only to find its exports crucified by a high pound. To add insult to injury, steel faces a pollution tax next year. Will Mr Brown heed their pleas? I hope so. It's all very well to be obsessed with high-tech 'sunrise' industries like IT, but manufacturing jobs create more jobs outside in a way that trendy service industries don't. Wealth creators need it.

None of this means Frank Dobson is entering the 18-month pre-election phase (up to May 2001?) down-hearted. He has trouble from the Mail over nurses' pay, from the Mirror over junior doctors' pay and hours, and from everyone over waiting lists. Labour's internal opinion polling is picking up voter discontent over transport (surprise, surprise!) and the NHS, more so than over education. I meet it all the time in conversations, especially with disappointed Labour supporters - and you must do, only more so.

So we can have even more confidence than before that Dobbo will get an extra dollop of cash on top of the famous£20bn over three years, noisily handed out to doctors, nurses and Viagra sufferers - albeit with productivity strings attached (well, perhaps not attached to the Viagra). Labour is not home and dry. Managers and the Telegraph will have noticed that the modernised TUC expects to recruit a million new members over five years. Like most New Brits, they will want something for their subscriptions; the average age of union members is now 46, and of British workers - him and her - 34.