Darling's Big Mini-Budget

The quiet man gets the tone right for the statement of his political career

Prime Minister's Questions has been increasing in volume recently, making me think that parliament is already in election mode.

But even the most hostile recent Brown-Cameron exchanges were as nothing compared to the atmosphere surrounding this afternoon's pre-Budget report.

Alistair Darling began very low-key, almost sotto voce to early chortles about his claims that the government was "living within our means".

But the jeers began in earnest as the chancellor stated that the present crisis began in the US housing market.

Somehow such conduct felt inappropriate here. Vince Cable later described the situation as a national emergency and he is right. His party leader, Nick Clegg, sat through the proceedings in respectful silence, as did his Liberal Democrat colleagues - respectful not of the government, but of the gravity of the situation.

David Cameron would have done well to order his backbenchers to sit through the statement in silence. Such an approach would have spooked the government and, in the end, the chancellor drove them into submission with his relentless, quiet monotone anyway.

This was an assured performance from Darling, who appears to be genuinely unflappable in what he can now say is an "unprecedented global crisis" without being accused of talking down the economy. Indeed, such was the hyperbole flying around the house that this seemed like something of an understatement.

Darling won the battle with Downing Street to be honest about the fact that a fiscal stimulus now would have to be paid for later. This didn't stop George Osborne from punishing him for his frank approach, but it rather spiked his guns.

The chants from the Labour backbenches of "What would you do?" seemed to unsettle the shadow chancellor.

It was striking that Darling's economic forecasts were so optimistic: 1.5-2 per cent growth to return as early as 2010. I do hope he's right. There's clearly no point whatsoever in putting a set of emergency measures in place if you don't think they will work.

George Osborne said this marked the greatest failure of public policy in a generation. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, his voice has lowered a register and his righteous fury was at times impressive. At key moments, however, his voice cracked including when he described plans to increase National Insurance as "not just a tax bombshell but a precision guided missile".

Osborne's attack went down well with the Tory backbenchers, but it did not wound his opponent, who was able to engage what now must be Labour election narrative: where the government acted the Tories would have done nothing. "What would you do, George?" is a slogan of some resonance.

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PMQs review: David Cameron's call for Jeremy Corbyn to resign will only help him

 "For heaven's sake man, go!" The PM's appeal was sincere but the Labour leader can turn it to his advantage. 

It is traditionally the leader of the opposition who calls for the prime minister to resign. At today's PMQs, in another extraordinary moment, we witnessed the reverse. "For heaven's sake man, go!" David Cameron cried at Jeremy Corbyn, echoing Oliver Cromwell's address to the rump parliament ("in the name of God, go!") and Leo Amery's appeal to Neville Chamberlain in the 1940 Norway debate.

While it was in his "party's interests" for Corbyn to "sit there", Cameron said, it wasn't "in the national interest". Some will regard this as a cunning ruse to strengthen the Labour leader's position. But to my ear, Cameron sounded entirely sincere as he spoke. With just two months left as prime minister, he has little interest in seeking political advantage. But as he continues to defy appeals from his own side to resign, the addition of a Tory PM to the cause will only aid Corbyn's standing among members. 

After rumours that Labour MPs would boycott the session, leaving a sea of empty benches behind Corbyn, they instead treated their leader with contemptuous silence. Corbyn was inevitably jeered by Tory MPs when he observed that Cameron only had "two months left" to leave a "a One Nation legacy" (demanding "the scrapping of the bedroom tax, the banning of zero-hours contracts, and the cancelling of cuts to Universal Credit"). Cameron conceded that "we need do more to tackle poverty" before deriding Corbyn's EU referendum campaigning. "I know the Hon. Gentleman says he put his back into it. All I can say is I'd hate to see it when he's not trying." 

The other notable moment came when Theresa May supporter Alan Duncan contrasted Angela Merkel with "Silvio Borisconi" (a Hansard first). Cameron replied: "Neither of the people he's talking about are candidates in this election, it's an election I will stay out of ... I was given lots of advice, one of them was not to go to a party with Silvio Berlusconi and I'm glad I took it." Given the recent fate of those who personally mocked Johnson during the referendum campaign, Duncan's jibe may not do May's cause much more help now. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.