Darling sticks with a rather battered tradition

When Labour came to power in 1997, Gordon Brown marked new beginnings by ditching the battered old Budget box that had been passed down the generations since 1860.

He replaced it with a new box made by shipyard apprentices and upholstered in bright red leather. It was very much a case of New Labour, New Budget Box, and it was a visible symbol of the economic boom years.

What a difference a couple of years make. When Mr Brown moved to No.10, Alistair Darling went back to the old box. Yesterday it was still there, its tatty leather even more symbolic than last year. But at least it's a sign that Britain goes on – even when things are grim. The briefcase was made for William Gladstone, and used by every chancellor until James Callaghan (the only chancellor to have worked for the Inland Revenue), who in 1965 and 1966 used a "vulgar brown valise" bearing the monogram "EIIR". The Tories returned to the original. After the last general election, Mr Brown had his bag made.

Gladstone, who served a record 12 years as chancellor, was said to hug the bag to his breast "with a kind of affectionate yearning suggesting the love of a mother for an infant". More likely it was to keep its secrets from the prying eyes of Queen Victoria.

When Norman Lamont was chancellor in the early 1990s, the bag waved at photographers outside No.11 contained a bottle of whisky. His speech was in a plastic bag carried by his aide, William Hague.