THERE is a truism in Westminster circles that where a Budget is all about tax and spend, the Autumn Statement is an entirely political animal.
So it should be no surprise that George Osborne, this most political of Chancellors, delivered his most politically-charged Treasury statement to date yesterday, a calculatingly triumphant speech that had his Tory backbenchers roaring their approval.
Every word that passed the Chancellor’s lips was aimed directly at his arch-nemesis, Ed Balls; every announcement designed to cause maximum pain to Labour.
The election is still 17 months away. We can only imagine what next year’s speech will be like.
But the fact is that Mr Osborne has waited a long time for this.
On too many occasions over the past three years, Mr Osborne has been forced to make the short trip down Whitehall from Number 11 to deliver more dire economic news.
Too many times have MPs sat grim-faced as he piled bad news upon worse, with GDP figures flatlining and spending slashed in every conceivable way. Too many times has the white-faced, tight-lipped Chancellor sat in silence at the end of his statement while a beaming Mr Balls tore into his perceived economic failure.
But no more.
Yesterday we saw a supremely confident Mr Osborne at the dispatch box, buoyed by this opportunity to at last announce he is leading the nation to recovery.
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, he was enjoying this.
“Britain’s economic plan is working,” he began, every word pronounced slowly and with relish, to raucous cheers from the Conservative benches.
When the noise had died down, he continued with the first of many stinging barbs for his opponents.
“But the job is not done. We need to secure the economy for the long term. And the biggest risk to that comes from those who would abandon the plan.”
Mr Osborne did not mention Labour by name – but there was no doubt about to whom he was referring.
What is abundantly clear is while David Cameron was away selling Land Rovers, HS2 and pig semen to the Chinese this week, the Chancellor has been busy preparing his own sales pitch for the voters.
“We will not let up in dealing with our country’s debts,” Mr Osborne said, staring across the chamber at Mr Balls. “We will not squander the hard-earned gains of the British people.”
The positive economic news came thick and fast – the biggest upgrade in economic outlook in well over a decade; accelerating growth over the months and years to come; Britain to be in surplus by 2018.
For good measure, he threw in some new revisions which show the 2008/09 crash was even worse than previously thought – an almost unprecedented drop in GDP of 7.2 per cent.
The message was clear – remember what Labour did to your economy. We are the ones to heal it.
Finally, reluctantly, Mr Osborne moved away from the economic projections. But still the political statements came thick and fast.
An “independent” report was unveiled, showing the Treasury has recovered more than half the cost of each cut in corporation tax delivered by Mr Osborne through the extra receipts which have followed as a result. This was, coincidentally, the perfect riposte to Labour’s plan to raise corporation tax in 2015.
More political still was the announcement of a new Charter for Budget Responsibility, which will be voted on by MPs next year and is designed to tie Mr Balls in to a far more restrictive fiscal framework than he might otherwise choose over the course of the next Parliament.
Labour will surely be forced to support it – to do otherwise in the current political climate would be electoral suicide.
A new, tighter cap on welfare spending was also unveiled – again, Labour will surely have no choice but to accept it.
Even the actual tax-and-spend measures Mr Osborne announced had a clear political bent, designed either to trap Labour into a corner or flush them out of ground where they have appeared to hold the upper hand.
The one unexpected big ticket item, a £1,000 rebate for high street businesses, was a blatant response to Labour’s pledge to cut business rates in 2015.
We saw fuel bills cut, petrol duty frozen, train fares capped at the rate of inflation, Nick Clegg’s free school meals – all measures designed to head off Labour’s successful campaign on what it calls the “cost of living crisis”.
Indeed, on 12 separate occasions during his 50-minute speech, the Chancellor made reference to the “cost of living”. That is 12 more than all of his previous Budgets and Autumn statements combined.
Labour may have been making all the running in this area, but Mr Osborne holds the privileged position of actually being being able to take action.
But for all the Chancellor’s triumphalism yesterday, big question marks still remain.
There were several key figures buried away within the Office for Budget Responsibility’s small print which strangely, he did not find the time to mention during his lengthy address in the Commons.
One in particular leaps out.
By 2015, wages are projected to have fallen by 5.8 per cent in real terms since 2010.
So for all Mr Osborne’s £1,000 giveaways and headline-grabbing free lunches, the fact remains that most people are feeling poorer than they used to. And the chances are, they will continue to do so come 2015.
Whether this squeeze on personal finances trumps Mr Osborne’s cherished GDP figures will be the defining question of the next election.
*Jack Blanchard is the Yorkshire Post’s political editor.