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Darling’s 3D Budget: tiny in length, but big in its message

Alistair Darling has delivered the thinnest and yet most politically astute Budget of his stormy reign at the Treasury.

The minimalism was deceptive. There was quite a lot going on, but in order to observe the full effect it might have been worth purchasing those three-dimensional glasses worn when watching Avatar.

I am not comparing Darling to a record-breaking film director, or suggesting his Budget was the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. But Darling did deliver a package as unavoidably three-dimensional as the film.

His Budget was about the past, the immediate future and a bigger leap into the unknown. As such it was the perfect preview of the election campaign to come.

More explicitly and effectively than in his previous Budgets, Darling made the political case for the Government's hyper-activity in the recent past. His statement was punctuated with proclamations that "the right calls were made", and it was "no coincidence" the economy was growing. Darling delivered these proclamations like a quiet assassin, as if they were bullets from a gun - all of them aimed at Cameron and George Osborne.

There is no guarantee the Chancellor's bullets will hit their target. Indeed, his account of the recession highlights one of several reasons why the election is proving to be more unpredictable than most.

It is, though, Labour's strongest card - and one handed to them by the Tory leadership. But Labour's ace will have only limited impact.

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Voters rarely look back and express gratitude, not least when they have lived through a frightening recession and are still scared. They look ahead and wonder what will happen next. On this, Darling was much foggier. The lenses of the 3-D glasses could be polished a thousand times and the view would not be much clearer. He did not have a lot to say about the immediate future and only provided glimpses of the more distant horizon.

In truth, Darling had no room for spectacular game-changing announcements in this Budget - in effect the second he has delivered in the space of three months.

If Labour were to be re-elected there would be the third and fourth parts of this exercise, with another pre-Budget report and the Comprehensive Spending Review to come.

These are the leaps into the unknown. Darling made much of the efficiency savings, those painless cuts that are fashionable a few weeks before an election. There will be far more painful ones after the election, but no-one knows precisely what form these will take. As part of his pre-election pitch, Darling warned vaguely of tough choices ahead and that the recovery was "still in its infancy".

This is a delicate balancing act. He and Gordon Brown want to claim credit for the tentative recovery, but not to such an extent that they cue in David Cameron with his tonally awkward package of sun-shining austerity.

The next election will be a curious affair. On one level whoever wins will have to cut spending in ways they do not dare to contemplate in public. To some extent they do not do so privately either.

And yet there is a real divide, one that is more tangible than in any election for a long time. It relates to the role of government and the degree to which it has a responsibility to intervene and can do so successfully.

This is the essence of the divide: do voters regard government as part of the solution, or the main problem as Britain staggers out of recession? The answer to that question will determine the outcome of the election.

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