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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 14:15 GMT
Darling plays it straight
Alistair Darling, left, with predecessor and boss Gordon Brown, right
Alistair Darling, left, with predecessor and boss Gordon Brown, right

By James Hardy
BBC Political Correspondent

It was billed as the Bad News Budget and it fell to Alistair Darling to deliver it. For the first nine years of Labour rule Gordon Brown held aloft the red box outside 11 Downing Street.

Mr Brown may now have moved on to bigger things but it's clear that he has taken a close interest in his successor's first Budget.

Indeed, one joke doing the rounds at Westminster had it that Mr Darling could not leak spending plans in advance because Mr Brown hadn't told him what they were yet.

But if the current prime minister has a better idea of the Budget's contents than Tony Blair ever had, he may not want to be too closely associated with it.

Mr Darling, of course, put the bravest possible face on a difficult day with Mr Brown, often smiling broadly, nodding encouragement throughout.

That is because he has left his successor to pick up the pieces as an economic slowdown threatens to undo Labour's hard-won reputation for economic competence.

So in his first Budget Day outing, Mr Darling was faced with confirming what the experts already knew - growth falling short of predictions, lower tax revenues and plummeting consumer confidence.

As one Labour MP put it beforehand, the chancellor "does deadpan naturally" - and his performance at the Despatch Box left the firm impression of a man making a virtue out of dullness.

Where Gordon Brown used to batter his opponents with a blizzard of statistics before wowing his supporters with a rabbit from the hat, Mr Darling played it straight.

No hidden nasties


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Statistics there were aplenty, but rabbits came there none.

Bruised by the political fall-out from the pre-Budget report and from Mr Brown's final Budget, when he hid the axing of the 10p income tax band behind a 2p cut in the basic rate, the Treasury's emphasis this time was on probity.

The message behind the Budget was "what you see is what you get" - in other words, no hidden nasties buried in the small print.

Mr Darling, of course, put the bravest possible face on a difficult day with Mr Brown, often smiling broadly, nodding encouragement throughout.

There was much talk of Britain weathering economic storms generated in far-flung places and the fundamental strength of the economy - continued growth, low inflation, high employment and, above all, stability.

There were measures, too, aimed directly at the nervous Labour backbenches, with promises to ease child poverty, help poor people find work and to raise the winter fuel allowances for pensioners.

'Shooting fish in a barrel'

The decision to hold back on a 2p rise in petrol duty should also play well among Labour MPs and even the steep rises in alcohol duty can be sold as an attack on binge drinking and public disorder.

There were also a few bones tossed to the City with pledges to remove barriers to small and medium sized businesses - even a small climbdown on plans to levy extra tax on "non-doms".

But there was no hiding the underlying fact that, despite spending tweaks and plans to tax plastic bags and gas-guzzlers, the cupboard was pretty bare.

Neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats have the answer to the looming international economic difficulties - but that did not stop David Cameron and Nick Clegg laying into the chancellor with predictable glee.

Mr Cameron accused the Government of piling on taxes as mortgages rose, petrol prices went up and food bills spiralled.

Warming to his theme, he insisted Britain was badly prepared for a downturn - instead of the Government helping people when the going got tough, he said, it kicked them when they were down.

That was a theme echoed by Mr Clegg in his own barrage at the chancellor. It was the political equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Mr Darling will have been relieved that it was all over.

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