There were times yesterday when it was hard to believe that there had been a change of Chancellor, so reminiscent of his predecessor's register and cadences was the Budget speech of Alistair Darling. There was, though, an extra note of sombreness, which defined the difference between 2007 and 2008. And this was not just – as Mr Darling tried repeatedly to insist – because of the uncertainty of the global climate to which our admirably open economy was inevitably exposed. It reflected a sense of home-grown insecurity as well.
The word to which the Chancellor returned time and again was "stability". He intended it as reassurance. If maintaining stability is the Chancellor's priority, however, it rather presupposes that the enemy at the gate is instability. This inspires less confidence than he may have hoped. Superficially, everything was on course. Existing targets for spending, borrowing and the rest would be met. Judged against other major industrialised countries, Britain was performing well: low inflation, low unemployment and record numbers in jobs. But, as David Cameron was quick to point out, you pick and choose your comparisons. On other indices, such as interest rates and debt, we do not look nearly as exemplary.
Britain's strength – or weakness – in the face of the global slowdown is something that will be debated at least until the next election, whenever it is held. Set beside his macro-concern with stability, however, what the Chancellor actually announced were mostly micro-measures in a Budget that came close to being a non-event. He confirmed previously announced changes in savings and tax rates. He deferred the fuel tax increase, in the light of soaring oil prices. And, in a clear effort to appear decisive, he stressed that he was sticking to his latest revisions of capital gains tax and arrangements for the non-domiciled super-rich.
Child benefits are being raised ahead of time, in a probably vain effort to meet the target of halving child poverty by 2010, while at the other end of the age spectrum, pensioners' winter fuel payments are being increased. Elsewhere, a few hundred million pounds were scattered around worthy recipients, such as GCSE teaching and affordable housing. To help pay for this very limited largesse, there was a return with a vengeance to the traditional "sin" taxes on tobacco and alcohol.
Although road-pricing made a welcome, if unexpected, return, barely a week after apparently being rejected by the Transport Secretary, the supposed "green" taxes were a disappointment. They smacked of revenue-raising rather than conviction. Compulsory charging for plastic bags will be considered – but only if supermarkets fail to act before 2009; a new scale for car tax will encourage cleaner cars, but not quite yet.
Overall, Mr Darling's Budget was little more than an assemblage of micro-measures, which illustrated just how little room for manoeuvre his predecessor – and the global climate, and the rescue of Northern Rock – had left him. That he had to hark back so often to comparisons with 10 or 20 years ago also showed how few bragging rights Labour's 11 years in power had given him. Introducing his Budgets, Mr Brown would proudly announce the latest year of continuous growth. Mr Darling had implicitly to recognise that, as leaner times loom, precious little remains in the national kitty.
This is not to criticise the rise in spending as such. Public services were neglected and the infrastructure needed attention. Our complaint is that so much was spent for such relatively modest returns. In time, the former Chancellor's reputation for sound stewardship may start to look less secure. If it does, there is a certain irony that he will face the consequences as Prime Minister.