PUNCH and Judy politics is easier to follow if you already know the script. The accidental publishing of an embargoed front page – containing a detailed run-down of the Budget – a good 30 minutes before the chancellor took to the despatch box added a certain predictability to yesterday’s proceedings.
But the House of Commons loves a good show and the Budget – one of the highlights of parliament’s theatrical season – must go on, even if some smart alec has shouted out the plot twists on the way in.
The smart alec in question yesterday was shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who delighted in spending most of the hour-long speech waving photocopied editions of the Standard at his befuddled rival.
George Osborne, in only his fourth leading role, took the stage regardless. On one side of the public gallery was his mother, urging him on. On the other side was his father-in-law, Lord Howell, sat ominously next to Labour’s Lord Mandelson.
Act One of the production was depressing and brooding, as the chancellor explained that something was still rotten in the state of Britain’s economic forecasts. Figures pinged all round, designed to build up the dramatic tension. Every so often the Tory MPs who had been roped in to act as chorus members remembered to cheer at the right moment.
But there was little chance to form an emotional attachment to the lead actor reading out these strings of numbers – no passion, no hope.
Meanwhile the Labour benches flipped between jeers and undisguised boredom. While Balls read his newspaper, David Miliband hung at the very back of the chamber, watching proceedings in a detached manner. If you didn’t know better then you could imagine he was someone’s much cooler older brother, popping back home for the night to check in on his sibling’s party.
By Act Two, Osborne was trying to introduce a note of hope for humanity. In the future, he declared, the freeborn Englishman’s right to drink himself into an early grave would be protected – and it would cost him 1p less per pint of beer! From this Sunday and forever more, every time we buy 450 drinks we will have saved enough money to obtain a free pint of Fosters in central London.
Second, in this brave new world the personal allowance will be raised to a whopping £10,000 tax-free sum, freeing up the funds to buy our 450 drinks and obtain our complimentary Budget pint.
But that burst of optimism faded into a dark closing scene. The valiant chancellor had lost his voice, his body and voice exhausted by the effort involved in spitting out such gloom.
Finally – with a heroic death rattle – his voice collapsed with a warning of the dangerous posed by “corporate tax losses–es-sss”. And the curtain came down. Until next year.