How relentless George Osborne sounded. Here was a tense and angry Chancellor whose chosen weapon was the bludgeon. He wished to drum various lessons into us so thoroughly that we could neither escape nor deny them. “Britain is walking tall again,” he informed us twice in his opening passage, followed by the repeated assurance that “we choose the future”. It was almost like listening to Gordon Brown again.
Only a few minutes elapsed before the first mention of the “long-term economic plan”. Here came, thank heavens, a moment of self-mockery, as Osborne added, “Now there’s someone with a way with words.”
The curious thing is that Osborne does have a way with words, when he wishes to use it. He is fascinated by history (“we choose the past,” as one would have liked him to say), and offered us a little tour of the historic government debt that is being paid off, from the South Sea Bubble onwards, before adding: “The debt used by Gordon Brown will take a little longer to pay off.”
Here was the enemy plain in view. Whatever else this Budget is supposed to achieve, it is meant as a demolition job on the Labour Party. Perhaps that is the right way to go about things: we have an adversarial system, and with the general election campaign upon us, the time has come to kick the Opposition to pieces.
But the regrettable thing about all this anger was that it rather detracted from the impressive story which the Chancellor has to tell. As Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, pointed out when he rose to speak, “the economy is strong” and “the current Chancellor deserves a good deal of credit”. A general recovery, perceptible in every part of the country, is under way. The employment figures are amazingly good.
The Chancellor mentioned the astonishing possibility that in 15 years’ time our economy will overtake Germany’s. There was a wonderful amount of good news in this Budget, some of which may turn out to be illusory or over-stated, but some of which is perfectly genuine. He could have sketched the sunlit uplands for us and put a spring in our step as we trudge uphill towards them.
But Osborne was instead more intent on fighting a lowland grudge match against Labour, banging their Eds against a brick wall. Even when the Chancellor spoke of taking “a penny off a pint for the third year in a row”, he sounded like an angry man in a pub, the kind of hectoring fellow one wants to get away from, instead of a Merry England Conservative who is delighted to find his fellow men and women enjoying the fruits of their toil by relaxing on a sunny evening over a well-earned drink.
Please can we not have a whole election campaign that sounds like this? But one fears that like the German general staff in 1914, our masters have made their plan, and would regard any deviation from it as a sign of weakness.