It’s hard to say that was dull. How can talking about a £178bn financial deficit this year alone possibly be dull? Yet it is only when contrasted to the slightly histrionic counter-punch of the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, that Alistair Darling begins to look more than worthy. Then he looks sober, perhaps cool even. Measured, is that the word he kept at the forefront of his mind as he lulled us towards the hard decade of debt?
Last year at the PBR the chancellor cast a sleeping spell over the nation as he racked up the bill for bailing out the banks - the chamber snoozed its way into historic deficits.This year they were more alert because there were other figures to consider which might be measured in slim hundreds rather than billions. The numbers that worry Labour MPs most is the size of their parliamentary majority and there was too much at stake in this Pre-election, sorry pre-budget report, for them to even consider falling asleep.
Darling gave them every opportunity to nod off, his softly spoken voice barely rising above a whisper. If someone coughed in the chamber you were in danger of missing £3bn down the back of a leather bench.No one could expect a flight of capital on the back of such a soothing presentation. There were no rabbits out of the hat, if you discount that we all have to pay another 1/2p more in national insurance.
Even when, bang on schedule, for the one o’clock news the man in the grey suit and grey tie announced a tax raid on the piggy bankers bonuses it raised barely a cheeer from the Labour benches.When he announced a 2p cut in bingo duty someone ought to have shouted "full house" but in truth the Labour benches knew that if this dividing line budget doesn’t work then they will be looking at far less than that in a few months from the benches opposite.
Chancellors always speed up through the bad news and even the best copytakers had trouble following Darling’s rocketing deficit trail. Up clicked the numbers until they settled close to the mileage on a mid-1970s Volvo 240 estate. The opposition gave a collective plumber’s sucking sigh when the till stops ringing at £1.26 trillion. It could be worse, we could have been born Irish.
He squeezed public sector pay but Mr Darling spared himself and his Labour colleagues any more pain by refusing to hold a public spending review, clever move.
If being the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the middle of the biggest financial firestorm ever is hard work 363 days of the year then the day of the PBR, and the Budget, are when the Shadow chancellor earns his spurs.George Osborne, flourising the fountain pen of privilege, scrawled notes to himself as Philip Hammond and Oliver Letwin, swapped calculations on the back of Blackberry.
He’s a dangerous boy is Osborne on a good day but his savage attacks on Gordon Brown bounced off the Prime Minister’s boiler-plated hide, which, incidentally, he could trade in for new, more efficient one under the chancellor’s green flannel scheme.