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Pre-Budget statement: Grey, dull - but politically and ecologically correct

The Sketch
"WE ARE fans of recycling," said Malcolm Bruce, opening the Liberal Democrat response to the Chancellor's pre-budget statement. If inspected closely, his phrase suggested, then the discarded sheets of Mr Brown's speech might be found to carry one of those bendy arrow logos which you find on the cheaper brands of toilet paper.

Of course, some forms of recycled paper these days are rather sophisticated, so effectively masticated and sleekly recomposed that no trace of previous incarnations can be detected. But the Chancellor's budget was constructed of the coarser kind, undeniably grey and dull in texture. It was the sort of paper favoured by the manufacturers of politically correct greetings cards, a paper which proudly advertises its ecological virtues by containing conspicuous strands of the raw material which went into it.

Back in the heady days of 1997, still dizzy from his heroic emancipation of the Bank of England, Mr Brown had offered a Budget which headlined on long-term prudence. And long shreds of that triumphant speech were visible here, beneath the confident projections and party-pleasing dispensations of charity which had been typed over them.

He used the phrase "long-term" no less than 18 times, but other identifiable fibres were conspicuous in the composition, too - "prudence" and "stability", "caution" and "sustainability". These had been so effectively mulched that, after a while, you couldn't quite tell where one started and the other stopped any more - sustainable long-term caution would lead to stable prudence and that, in turn, would provide solid foundations for a cautious stability in prudent long-termism.

In fact, in just his first five words Mr Bruce had made a rather more effective response to the Chancellor's statement than Francis Maude did in several hundred. Mr Bruce had some advantages, it is true. He wasn't obliged to pretend that we were on the very brink of an economic precipice, that the air was rent with the shrieks of those crushed beneath the wheels of the government juggernaut, which even now was lumbering implacably towards the abyss. Instead he could point out, with a measured amusement, that there wasn't much new here and that Mr Brown might have done better to acknowledge the current risks.

Mr Maude's performance, on the other hand, was predictably going to be a kind of inverted version of Corporal Jones in Dad's Army, a man running around on the spot shouting "Don't panic! Don't anic!" and having exactly the opposite effect to that intended. On the Labour front bench, Tony and Gordon became calmer and more amused as he proceeded, provoking yet more indignation from the Shadow Chancellor. "There they are, Madam Speaker, exchanging smug grins," he declared in one of his rare departures from script.

Not all of his pre-cooked phrases were off target - "fairy-tale forecasting", for example, turned out to be a perfectly reasonable description of the way in which the Chancellor boldly invited the House to judge him on his future record. "Figures better in every year of this Parliament, than in any year of the last parliament!" he had announced triumphantly after contrasting the Government's optimistic predictions for the next five years with the Tories' last term in office.

He thumped the despatch box so confidently when he came to the full-stop that it was momentarily possible to forget that the better half of these statistics were mere son et lumiere, projected on clouds of glory. If the wind turns, as many think it might, they would evaporate overnight.

But Mr Maude does not appear to be the kind of speaker who can quickly take advantage of such open goals. He is a man for set-piece movements and even then he doesn't bring them all off, stuttering over more than one of his soundbites.

I am told that he has improved immeasurably at the dispatch box over the past few months but if that is true, then it's hardly surprising that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister looked so complacent as they prepared for his reply - even in recycled form, they offered more sheen and gloss.