He began with a Noddy-in-Toytown history of the recession, reminding us that it all began back in 2007 when those naughty Americans started making lots and lots of silly loans. Then he said that the recession brought unexpected blessings. Families with tracker-mortgages were saving £230 a month. ‘Inflation has come down’, he said, ‘so people’s incomes will go further.’ Yes, and it’s a great time to be a bailiff, a scrap-metal dealer and a pusher of anti-depressants. And if you want to get on the housing ladder you’re laughing. Hey, if recession is this good let’s enshrine it as the first goal of fiscal policy.
In his unassuming way Darling admitted that the economy would shrink this year by 3.5 percent but pointed out that the figure was ‘in line with other countries.’ He talked reassuringly about the ‘sustainable path’ and ‘a confident and successful Britain’. The ‘underlying strength’ of the economy would bring a return to growth ‘by the end of the year’. The RPI would fall to minus 3 percent in September before returning to zero in 2010. It all sounded perfectly reasonable. There might be a lot of debt but Darling knew how to bring it down. He even suggested he could reduce it faster than planned but was anxious not to ‘choke off the recovery.’
The Chancellor projects a John Major-ish air of calm and decency, and - though he’s hardly a tactical genius - his homely manner was well suited to his near-successful attempt to disguise the fact that these were the worst figures ever delivered by a British finance minister. Slyly, he announced the deficit projections in two ways, side by side. First, the total figure, and then the same statistic expressed as a fraction of national output. It had me fooled. At one point I thought he said that debt would rise to 79% of GDP in two years’ time. The BBC’s commentary repeated this figure and I assumed we were both wrong. But no, the numbers are accurate. Britain is four fifths of the way to bankruptcy.
Darling didn’t skate over his other headline figure, the new top income tax rate of 50 percent. After he finished, the BBC pundits were convinced that Cameron would stumble over this divisive new policy but the Tory leader merely ignored it. He stood up bristling like a bonfire, his contempt for Labour so vivid you could almost smell it through the TV. Barely bothering to address the Chancellor in person, Cameron directed his attention to Labour’s 12-year record in power. ‘Any claim they had to fiscal competence is dead, over, finished.’ He translated Darling’s garbled figures into English. Borrowing would rise to £606 billion over the next four years, ‘more than all previous governments put together - since the Bank of England was founded 300 years ago.’
Gordon Brown hunched uncomfortably as Cameron laid into him. ‘This prime minister can never be the future because he doesn’t understand what happened in the past.’ Conservative cheers urged him on. ‘Why do we need another 14 months of this government of the living dead?’ On the green Treasury benches the cabinet looked queasily into the floor. All of them wore the same doomed and immobile stare – like a herd of knackered zebras being harried by a frisky and very hungry young lion.