George Osborne unties his hands

The chancellor’s hands are tied,” we kept hearing last week. But like the digits of a precocious contortionist, George’s fingers fluttered free.

They bounced iambically over not-quite-iambic phrases – “to fix the budget to fit the forecast” – pointed emphatically upwards as his nasal tones scraped the rafters and stretched themselves soothingly over sunny phrases and inconvenient facts.

Sliding gingerly into the delicate matter of downgraded growth forecasts, George invoked the ghost of Gordon, and the House groaned. “It has been known for chancellors in recent years to rattle these [growth forecasts] off at great speed in the hope that no one will keep up,” he said. “I will not do that.”

No, George chose an uncharacteristically measured pace, as if afraid that a step off the scripted path might set off a landmine.

His careful pace was testament to months spent grooming a tightrope act of which even Gordon might have been proud: tactical feints, mysterious sleights of tax bands, enterprise zones sent forth like winged monkeys.

Halfway through, notes began to be passed with increasing urgency on the opposition benches, all of them funnelled through Ed Balls before they reached young Ed’s excitable gaze. A pile of typed Labour notes even found their way around the press gallery, deploring “borrowing up by £44.5” (sic).

Balls heckled and blinked every time a mildly technical piece of jargon came his way, a bull catching sight of a red flag. Then Ed stood, positively wired, ready to catapult himself over the despatch box into George’s lap, as he unleashed the contents of a particularly useful crib-sheet from the back benches: “He’s not Nigel Lawson! He’s Norman Lamont with an iPod.”

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s chief spinner had ammunition ready for hacks as they trooped out: “There’s an important footnote on page 74!”

Well, quite.