The Sketch: Cameron's jokes fell flat – Darling's hit the target

The thing about these Tories is, they're amateurs. It's why we like them
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He did well to be giving a Budget at all; none of his lot wanted one. Maybe that's why he made that odd little remark recently about No10 having unleashed "the forces of hell" on him. It was a frank warning to the PM that, if bitten, he'd bite back.

So, there he was and good for him. We all like Alistair now, especially with the alternatives we could see, seething on their front benches.

Where were we? At the crossroads. We're always at a crossroads before an election. One way leads to poverty, misery and depression, and the other leads to prosperity and joy. Which way should we go? It's a poser, all right.

While we're chewing that one over, you should know that history was made. It was the funniest Budget statement ever. The element of surprise will always favour Alistair Darling in this regard. Like finding something funny in Punch, as we used to say. Mind you, it was about politics rather than economics, and that will always help.

He told the House that some property tax was going to be lightened, and the Tories cheered like billy-oh because that was their idea. But then he said they'd pay for it by increasing the same property tax on the rich. How Labour roared and waved.

He seemed to be about to admit some fault in his pension forecasts and got the Tories to make that "Ahhhh!" of suspicious surprise. But then his next sentence started with a "However" and Labour were able to "roar with laughter" back at them.

Then there was the cider tax; that made everyone laugh. Especially as he said he was going to "change the definition of cider" (to include chardonnay. And washing powder).

But it was the talk of tax havens that got them into their best mood. At the first mention, Labour started chanting, "Ashcroft! Ashcroft!". And the Tories responded by chanting, "Lord Paul! Lord Paul!". It's a wisdom-of-crowds thing. Darling had his finale coming. Tax loopholes were being closed, he said. Tax agreements had been made with various countries, including with three new ones. Everyone knew what was coming. "The Dominican Republic," he said, and Labour hugged itself with suppressed excitement. "Grenada," he said and Labour crossed its legs. "And Belize!" Labour failed to contain itself.

Actually, some Tories had the poise to laugh at themselves. And their leader showed us one of his attractive qualities: he blushed.

Cameron's reply had funny jokes, but because he has a sense of humour, none were as good as the Chancellor's dull ones. That's not a good omen.

He said that Gordon Brown's offer to fix the economy was like the captain of the Titanic offering to captain the lifeboats. And that the PM would never get a medal for courage but most of his Cabinet get mentioned in dispatches. And then a rather slicing quote from Gordon to some bankers' gathering, "What you did for financial services were going to do for the British economy!".

He reprised the jibes and jabs of the past five years. The biggest bust ever, the biggest debts, the biggest mess. "No one has thought of the question to which the answer is five more years of Gordon Brown."

It didn't quite hit the spot, did it? The thing about these Tories is, they're amateurs. It's why we like them. But in a pro-am game, played without handicaps, the professionals win.

And what about the substance of it? Cut now or cut later?

Again, it's not an economic argument. People who like high public spending say high public spending is the answer. And people who prefer low public spending say the opposite. Each side rallies experts to support it. Each side has cogent historical examples, and accuse opponents of "economic illiteracy".

At least we can produce one infallible literacy lesson from this Budget: when you added up all his figures they spell out the words Vote For Me!