The Sketch: If confidence is half the battle, we'll need another army

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It must have been deliberate. A masterpiece is never accidental. Above and beyond all imitation, it was in a class of its own. To adapt the words of the advertisement, that wasn't just boring, that was Alistair Darling boring.

Quite quickly into his 50-minute statement, he'd anaesthetised the Tories as planned, but then the wind changed, like at Ypres, and his own lot went down. They sat there listening to Spend! Spend! Spend! promises as unmoved as the steamed suet puddings we'd had for lunch. Numbed they were by the repetition in his uninflected drone: "And I can make another announcement." Every now and again, they'd hear, "so we took the decision to help" with a figure attached, "£1.8bn" or "up to £20,000" and they make the sort of noise our post-suet pudding stomachs were making before they drifted away again.

If confidence is half the battle, we'll need another army.

For Pete's sake, it was the biggest single economic statement in decades. The most dramatic change in public policy we've seen since the election of Mrs T, and the Chancellor gave it his Why Accountancy Is Not Boring treatment.

It wouldn't matter, except it was his solution to an economic crisis and economics isn't about economics, it's about mass psychology. Without gripping a) the attention and b) the imagination of the masses, no one will know what they're supposed to do. Spend? Save? Pay off debt? Go back to sleep? (Tick one.)

If he can't inspire enthusiasm in his Old Labour backbenches (or the New Labour benches or Middle Labour benches), how will it go across in the country? You're a better judge of that than I but it is true to say that he got a lesser cheer from Labour when he sat down than George Osborne got from Labour when he stood up.

Vast sums were deployed into silence. The top rate of tax was increased for fat cats and there wasn't a murmur of support. One proud boast, "I will bring the budget back into balance by 2015" got a great laugh from the Tories but Labour sat chill and still, thinking perhaps, "Hang on, wasn't this going to be a short, shallow recession?"

David Cameron sat there looking palpably anxious. Lips furled in. Brow knotted; or knitted possibly. George Osborne – his pale Regency features like a nasty Keats – sat beside him knowing his future depended on the next 90 seconds. Without a cheer in the first minute he'd be lost. It really is unfair, politics; it's why we all enjoy it. In the event, he saved himself with one strong, startling statement large enough to conceal that bow-string tremor in his larynx. We had just heard the largest amount of borrowing in the history of this country, he said. The Chancellor was doubling the national debt; it had taken centuries to accumulate but was going to double in five years.

What a roar he got (Cameron's expression just became beakier, a hen watching her chick running among foxes). Osborne took control of his voice and ran through some lines, some old, some new, some borrowed – but his best line had no wit, no polish, no craft. He rehearsed the Chancellor's explanations for the bust (all made in America) and finished with the emphatic but unvarnished "What. Total. Nonsense." Sincerity always works in this sentimental pit. The sincerity wasn't quite artificial enough for me but i was good enough.

He may have fed something into the information economy, one of those opinion-moving statements: Labour is going to double the national debt in five years.

Half of the election is clearer now. Labour's position is, in the Chancellor's words, that the Tories will do nothing. "They have absolutely nothing to say to Britain." That isn't going to sustain itself.

But the Tories will be able to saddle this debt-doubling idea on to Labour – it fits, it works, they won't be able to deny it. And it some-how links our own private trillion-quid debt with the nation's. We'd all love to blame someone else for our failings and Osborne might have made an enduring link.

That must set our two anxious Tory leaders up for the June election.

Comments