Darling's Budget no three-ring circus

Political Editor Graham Dines listens to a Budget litany of doom delivered by a Chancellor who is certainly no showman.THERE used to be a time when Budget speeches were great occasions of State, with a parliamentary performance to match.

Graham Dines

Political Editor Graham Dines listens to a Budget litany of doom delivered by a Chancellor who is certainly no showman.

THERE used to be a time when Budget speeches were great occasions of State, with a parliamentary performance to match.

MPs would dress up outlandishly - Commons characters such as the Tories Sir Gerald Nabarro and Dame Janet Knight and Labour's Leo Abse - would queue up early in their finery to grab the best seats available for backbenchers.

And how the great Chancellors of the last century would play to the gallery. David Lloyd George, Sir Andrew Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Harold Macmillan and James Callaghan - all of whom used the Treasury as a stepping stone on the path to Number 10 - Austen Chamberlain, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps, R.A. Butler, Peter Thorneycroft, Reginald Maudling, Tony Barber, Dennis Healey and even Kenneth Clarke - to them the day was special, the highlight of the year which they approached with a cross between trepidation and bravado.

Speculation would be rife in the Press gallery above the Commons chamber over just what the Chancellor would be drinking as he refreshed himself during a speech which would usually last around 90 minutes. Was that a gin and tonic, or was it a watered down whiskey?

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The speech itself, in the days before the Autumn Statement, would be all important. There'd be no hint at what were the contents of the Chancellor's famous red box which would be proudly displayed in a ministerial photograph posed for outside 11 Downing Street.

It was a closely guarded secret. No leaks seeped out of the Treasury and the Chancellor himself would have been in purdah for the weeks up to Budget Day to ensure there were no inadvertent slips of the tongue to give the merest hint of taxation, revenue, and spending plans.

However, the Budget has become one of the main victims of parliamentary modernisation. Ken Clarke switched the Budget from the more usual pre-Easter date to November to get rid of the need for an Autumn Statement.

And with the arrival of the Scottish mafia into the Treasury, Budgets become a more sober affair - quite literally. The only libation which Gordon Brown would allow himself was water.

The dressing up tradition came to an end. Budgets since 1997 have been treated by Labour as just another matter-of-fact speech, to be dispatched as quickly as possible. And there are hints to favoured journalists which do away with the surprise element.

The Autumn Statement, setting out the direction of fiscal policy, has been reintroduced and assumes far more relevance to the financial markets than the Budget.

Gordon Brown's Budgets were a self-congratulatory celebration of prudence. He always liked to start off by saying how much better the UK was doing than the Eurozone countries - a not so-subtle sideswipe at that single currency fanatic Tony Blair who was sitting alongside him.

And the speed of delivery was so fast that left that much of the detail had to be explained afterwards so the media didn't miss the message.

And so to Alistair Darling. His room for manoeuvre was limited because of his previous announcements, by the slump in world economies, and the lending crisis caused by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States.

It fell to Mr Darling to present a Bad News Budget. An economic slowdown leading to growth falling short of previous predictions, lower revenue from taxes, tighter mortgage lending crippling first time buyers, and consumer confidence at its lowest since Labour's 1997 landslide victory.

Mr Darling was keen to point out that Britain was doing better than other G8 nations, but even this “good news” didn't really convince anyone.

Pensioners over 60 will get an extra £50 winter fuel allowance and pensioner households over 80 years of age will have the allowance boosted by £100. The 2p rise in fuel duty has been put on hold until October but if prices keep on rising, that will be of only marginal comfort to motorists.

And there will be more measures to combat child poverty.

There were green elements to the Budget - more money for household insulation, a tax on plastic bags, and a showroom tax on gas guzzling vehicles. And Mr Darling moved to try to undo some of Tony Blair's laissez-faire drinking culture by slapping on a massive increase in alcohol duty.

“Cold,” “passion-free” and “humdrum” have been some of the verdicts from seasoned critics in the media. To Ipswich Labour MP Chris Mole, it was “a solid performance, a no fireworks Budget” which built on the stability of the past 10 years and which hit the right notes given the world-wide economic uncertainties.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, who said the speech “sounded about as exciting as someone reading out a telephone directory.”

Perhaps - but to my mind, the Budget was a litany of gloom, delivered with some authority from behind a dead-pan expression. Alistair Darling is not a parliamentary performer in the style of showmen and perhaps it's just as well, given his message that economic harsh times are just around the corner.

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