Sketch: Gollum Osborne finally chokes on his own words
George Osborne must be one of parliament's worst speakers. Only the more nervous of the 2010 intake can compete – the MPs who read in monotone from sheets of paper while their hands quiver. George has a curious combination of nervousness and indignation, a sort of arrogance combined with frantic uncertainty. On Budget days he is so keen to get through the speech he rattles through it, a machine gun of numbers and dubious commentary. His voice can't hold out. It starts weak and ends devastated, barely with enough time to recover before he starts the round of TV interviews the next day.
George gets less and less convincing by the year, as his fiery rhetoric is dashed on the rocks of total economic stasis. He also becomes less convincing by the minute, as his rattled, hoarse voice dying a death in his throat. This time he finally croaked, literally choking on his own words halfway through the Budget.
That was the low point, but things weren't great even as he started. The Tory cheers for their chancellor were subdued as he stood up. They died just that bit too quickly, revealing how little confidence the men and women behind him truly have in their election strategist. He lost neutral observers by emphasising the phrase 'aspiration nation' early on – one of those grating, terrible rhymes some focus group somewhere heard without suffering a seizure. It is groan-inducingly bad, nearly all the way up there with Nick Clegg's 'alarm clock Britain'. Osborne consequently referenced it several times.
'Aspiration nation'. The heart becomes heavy. It sounds like sixth form poetry, and there was much else which was sixth form about the chancellor today. His self-conscious strut from No 11 to his ministerial car this morning, brandishing the famous red briefcase, looked like a teenager trying to act cool in black tie at the end-of-year ball. His reading of his carefully prepared Budget statement was no better. He held his head down, pausing neither for breath nor for a change of subject. One second it's income tax, then fuel duty, then debt. Before one line has been acknowledged the next has already been delivered. The downside is that his voice takes the brunt of the day's political proceedings. The upside is no-one can really tell what he's going on about until later, when experts pick apart the holes in the Budget like a child with an old jumper.
"I'll be straight with the country," Osborne admitted. "It is taking longer than anyone hoped."
Cameron looked up at his friend throughout: supportive, strained and nodding regularly. It was unnatural but surely welcome. He was the only person on the government front bench who looked remotely impressed. Everyone else was staggeringly glum: Sir George Young, Andrew Lansley and Nick Clegg looked as if they'd just swallowed a fly. To Osborne's left, chief secretary Danny Alexander seemed on the verge of giving up. He bore the face of a man who has forgotten what good news sounds like.
The chancellor kept on spitting out numbers – some of them false, some of them later to be downgraded: a few figures shifted to the right column instead of the left and you'll be amazed how much deficit you can get rid of.
Finally the ratta-tat-tat delivery of numbers and aspirations became too much for him and he croaked. The words wouldn't emerge, and he coughed violently; staccato, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In fact, the similarities do not end there, but we shall not be so unkind as to list them.
By this point he just needed to get through it. Lines about "building the most competitive tax system in the world" were spattered out without resonance or timing in a desperate bid to get the whole dreaded thing over and done with. He was not alone. The one hour of talking was enough to drive anyone round the bend. But at least he had delivered it in a way which prohibited analysis. Given the circumstances, Downing Street will be pleased with that.