It is not often that the Leader of the Opposition applauds a government's Budget as "genius". Yet as he sat across from Alistair Darling and listened to the Chancellor deliver his main sweetener, stamp duty relief for first-time buyers, it was the word an exasperated David Cameron chose to describe the measure. The mocking praise, delivered as he threw his hands up in incredulity, barely masked his frustration at the Government's decision to cherrypick a policy he said his party had backed three years ago.
The Tory leader said that the Government should be ashamed of its management of the economy, adding that it had only brought "debt, waste and tax" in return for overseeing a ballooning deficit that will see Britain borrow £167bn this year. "Like every Labour government before them, they have run out of money and have left it to the next Conservative government to clean up the mess," he said. "It's time to sack the manager."
The captain of the Titanic, Richard Nixon, and the disgraced newspaper proprietor Robert Maxwell were all invoked by Mr Cameron to illustrate his assessment of the trustworthiness of Gordon Brown's government following the Budget, which he attacked for stealing Tory policies and delivering more questionable growth figures. He added that the "biggest risk to the recovery is five more years of this Prime Minister".
Tory figures were fuming that what Mr Cameron described as "Labour's big idea", raising the stamp duty threshold for first-time buyers to £250,000, had been stolen from them. "Where on earth did they get that one from," Mr Cameron asked the Chancellor. "He came in as Chancellor copying our inheritance tax cut, he leaves as Chancellor copying our stamp duty cut."
He also said two other policies, the steep increase in duty on cider and the funding of further university places, had been pickpocketed from Tory plans. The net result was that the "only new ideas in British politics" were coming from his party, he said. "The Chancellor spoke for an hour but he could have done it all in a sentence – Labour have made a complete mess of the British economy and they are doing nothing to clean it up.
"They told us they would be prudent – this Chancellor has just said that they will be borrowing £734bn over the next six years, giving us a national debt of £1.3 trillion," he said. "Next year they are going to be spending more on debt interest than they are going to be on educating our children."
Members of the Tory leadership were soon arguing that the lack of imagination in the "empty Budget" had given them the perfect platform on which to fight the election. They also said the Treasury would have to find a further £25bn in cuts to meet its own targets of bringing spending under control. "This allows us during the campaign to be the people with the new ideas, because there's absolutely nothing in this Budget," said a member of Mr Cameron's inner circle. "It's the day that Gordon Brown's premiership was found out – a pre-election Budget with nothing in it.
"The only noticeable new policies were ones directly lifted from the Conservative Party – alcohol changes, university places and stamp duty – all of which were attacked by Labour pretty heavily when we announced them. If this campaign is about change, energy and leadership, then this Budget gives us a very good opportunity to point out that you're going to get nothing from the Government and it will be more of the same."
However, a Tory government would not reverse the increase in stamp duty for those buying homes worth more than £1m by 5 per cent, to pay for helping first-time buyers. "The main thing we're trying to avoid is the national insurance tax increase introduced by this Government," he said. "We're more concerned about the taxes on the many, not the few."
Despite its distinctly low-key presentation, it was not just the Tories that were complaining that they felt robbed after the Budget. The Liberal Democrats also complained about "blatantly political" measures in the document that were simply designed to neutralise its own eye-catching policies. They saw the move to increase stamp duty on the rich is an attempt to head off the "mansion tax" proposed by Vince Cable, paid by those owning homes with more than £2m. The policy had been proving popular in Labour constituencies on the Liberal Democrats' hit list.
"We know that the mansion tax idea has been playing well. They know that, too," said a senior party source. "What they have proposed is trying to grab the headlines, but will actually be very easy to avoid." The party also felt that a new £2bn infrastructure investment bank, designed to foster future energy and low carbon projects, had been "cut and pasted" from a Liberal Democrat idea. "I admire the barefaced cheek of it," said the source.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Darling's statement amounted to a "given up Budget" that was symptomatic of an administration in terminal decline. "This isn't the preface to a new government but a footnote to 13 years of failure," he said. "We need real change. We needed a Budget that gave us honesty on spending and fairness on taxation. We got neither."
He added that it had again failed to spell out how savings would be made to plug Britain's deficit. "This Budget was a Budget in denial about the scale of change needed – about as honest as the CV of Stephen Byers," he said. "It's built on growth figures that are unlikely to materialise. It's built on false comfort from a small drop in borrowing that doesn't affect the structural deficit." He also aimed his fire at the Tories, attacking them for having "barely a fig leaf of detail" in their plans to cut spending.
Despite what will be seen as a highly political Budget, senior Labour figures still warned that the Government should be more candid about the cuts in spending that would be needed to guarantee Britain's creditworthiness. John McFall, Labour chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, said that "tackling the deficit is going to have to happen and, perhaps more importantly, it has to be seen to be happening".
Did you know?
The scarlet box held aloft by Kenneth Clarke on Budget Day in 1996 was the same one used by Gladstone in 1860.