But first – in a tone that suggested this was a mere trifling issue – Osborne had to abandon his flagship economic targets. Never fear, this chancellor has a vision. “We need to equip Britain to compete in a global economy!” he enthused. And what innovative investment will we start with? Why, the chancellor grinned, let’s start with a new bypass outside Luton.
What do we want? “Shovel ready projects!” Where do we want them? “In regional areas likely to provide a basis for modest economic growth in the next three financial years.”
The chancellor introduced policies like a cut-rate hip hop star, giving a shout-out to the backbench Tory MPs who had proposed each policy: “Will the honourable member for York Outer stand up and collect his prize for spotting a potential kerfuffle with business rates?”
Overall, the sense was that Osborne was trying to have his cake and eat it. Hit the rich (albeit not too much this time) but reward their companies; cut benefits (after having allowed them to soar, and protecting pensioners); and appeal to strivers (while hitting by dragging them into the 40p tax band) . The aim, of course, was to show that “we are all in it together”.
However our keeper of the purse strings was struggling. His voice was giving up and, having eschewed his right to enjoy a stiff drink at the despatch box, sips of water were not enough to keep the words coming.
By this stage Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and proponent of blue-collar conservatism, was excited. The chancellor was talking petrol. Now, fuel tax campaigner Halfon knew January’s duty hike would be delayed. The news had been leaked and briefed and leaked again until there was nothing left in the tank for our dear chancellor to reveal. But George had a revelation – the rise would be scrapped for good. Ed Miliband sat there, sulking at such populism and apparently chewing gum with some intensity.
The chancellor declined to end with a traditional “I commend this statement to house”. No: the modern, global, yes-we-can-compete-with-China chancellor simply declares “Thank You” before retiring from the despatch box to resume official duties.
Which, on this evidence, largely involves scoffing at Ed Balls. During a shambolic reply to Osborne’s 51-minute speech, the shadow chancellor was falling over himself – and his words – in a blind rush to go on the attack. “The national deficit is not rising,” Labour’s shadow chancellor inadvertently declared to hoots from both sides. “I’ll say that again...” he attempted.
It was too late. The House had decided that – even against a croaky chancellor on the back foot – Ed Balls had definitely lost this battle.