A budget for “makers, doers and savers”. And bingo promoters! So not the measures we had all been expecting, targeted at spendthrift hermits dedicated to a life of blameless inactivity and meditation. But we were ready for anything – maybe because of the music hall flourish in Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s introduction. “Put your hands together for the Prestigious Prestigidator and President of Fun, the Right Honourable George Osborne.” (OK, that’s not quite how he put it, but the effect was similar).
Dan Leno it wasn’t. Was the speech political? Can a duck swim? But this was political in a New Way. Of course, the Chancellor revelled in the fact that “no major advanced economy in the world is growing faster than Britain today”. But this was a more sober speech than usual – so much so that a couple of his colleagues appeared to nod off. “We should be alert to the risks” and the deficit was still the “highest in Europe”. Translation: things are better, but not so much that you can afford to vote Labour next year.
Osborne stuck bravely to some of the more tarnished of his mantras. We are still “all in it together”. He still invites us to admire the “difficult decisions” he has taken. This is easier to do now because of his almost ghostly pallor (no Cabinet minister has less facial colour than he) except that the decisions have proven a bit more difficult for the victims – of the bedroom tax, say, or cuts in social care for the elderly – than for him.
Curiously, the Chancellor’s new style is borrowed from the man he built his career by reviling. “So today, we support manufacturers and back all regions of our country… In this Budget we make sure hard working people keep more of what they earn and more of what they save.” This “Today, we…” formula is pure Gordon Brown.
In the speech’s best gag – the worst being on Labour’s failure to build homes in what is now planned as the new garden city of Ebbsfleet, “more ebb than fleet” – he foreshadowed the Magna Carta anniversary. This commemorated the “humbling defeat” of King John, “a weak leader who had risen to the top after betraying his brother, compelled by a gang of unruly barons to sign on the dotted line”.
Of course, Ed Miliband could have pointed out that the month after the general election sees the anniversary of Waterloo, whose most famous fictional casualty, thanks to Thackeray, was a faithless toff cheated of his inheritance by the name of George Osborne. But that would have required him to discuss the speech. The Opposition leader’s Budget response used to be the most difficult parliamentary gig of the year. Now it is pre-written.
Within these lax new rules, Miliband did fairly well, to a raucous Tory reception, taunting a somewhat fidgety Cameron and Osborne with a demand to rule out cutting the top tax rate to 40p. But for the minority of MPs who didn’t file out for lunch straight afterwards there was a pleasurable change of atmosphere, as the super-brainy Treasury Select Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie described the new savings measures as “extremely interesting”, congratulated the Chancellor for “flexibility” on the deficit and traced the history of “automatic stabilisers” back to the 1930s. It was a bit like a professor chairing a post-graduate seminar on astrophysics. Which he might as well have been, for all his less economics- literate fellow MPs could tell.