What a cheer went up when George Osborne announced the new national living wage, to be set at £9 by 2020. The Tories loved this. They saw the Chancellor walking off in broad daylight with a policy Labour would have loved to introduce.
Iain Duncan Smith stood at the far end of the House, his face wreathed in smiles. And one noticed many spectators who have no particular fondness for Osborne smiling too. They were enjoying the theatrical manner in which he had produced this rabbit from his hat.
One of my neighbours in the press gallery, a man of left-wing disposition, muttered “Labour’s f***ed”. And that was the general impression.
Budgets which are received with joy sometimes fall apart within days. But there was no doubt, inside the House, that Osborne had scored a triumph.
The effect of the national living wage announcement was all the greater because it came at the end of a speech which at times sounded slightly Gradgrindish. These reforms were no doubt very substantial, very estimable, and very logical, but there was something about them which failed to raise the spirits.
Isolated cries of defiance could be heard from the Labour benches. Helen Goodman (Lab, Bishop Auckland), who started her professional life as a Treasury official, screetched unintelligible imprecations from the far end of the Chamber. Hope had not yet been abandoned that Osborne would stand convicted of grinding the faces of the poor.
He cheered his own benches by promising “to meet the NATO pledge to spend two per cent of our national income on defence”. Julian Lewis, who chairs the defence select committee, and his predecessor, Rory Stewart, exchanged a triumphant handshake.
But the national living wage announcement eclipsed all else, as Osborne doubtless knew it would, for he had left it until last.
Alex Salmond was beaming from ear to ear. Perhaps he reckons Labour’s difficulty in replying to this Budget will benefit the Scottish Nationalists.
But it was Osborne who dominated the House as he set out his programme for the next five years. He can seldom have had a happier day as Chancellor.