The British people were expecting to be wounded and winded by a savage punch in the stomach today from a tough Budget designed to rescue the nation from the worst economic crisis since World War Two.
But Alistair Darling tried during his 50-minute speech to give the impression that the “punishment” he was meting out was by no means so severe and painful as people had feared. Mr Darling, regarded as the mournful Eeyore of the Cabinet, sounded, for once, if not jaunty, at least a trifle less pessimistic than his normal demeanour.
He even saw Britain as a “world leader”, described the Budget as one which “builds on the strength of the British people, providing jobs and spreading prosperity”, and said he expected the economy to start growing again towards the end of this year.
He was careful to avoid referring to “the green shoots of recovery”, five words which have reduced more than one politician to a laughing stock over the past few weeks. Even so, his untypically bold words, allied to the extra help for pensioners, children in poverty and military housing, could not mask the enormity of the situation he faces.
Poor old Darling! He did his best, but he does not possess the political bravura or the chutzpah to make really bad news sound even palatable. In short, he is a hopeless performer. Just as he said you cannot cut your way out of a crisis, so he was incapable of spinning his own way out of trouble.
He sounded, by the way he skated over the figures, a little as though he would rather the House of Commons did not know about the colossal borrowing the nation faces. As usual, there is also higher duty on alcohol and tobacco, and more taxation for the rich. Give Tony Blair a sow’s ear and he would instantly magic it into a silver purse. With Alistair Darling, it remains a sow’s ear.
The Chancellor sat down to receive a few pats on the shoulder from the Prime Minister sitting alongside, and a desultory cheer from Labour benches, a reception which certainly did not ring round the rafters. Mr Darling is purpose-built to lecture us, not to inspire us. The best that can be said about his performance is that it was workaday.