The Journal of Lynton Charles, Deputy Minister without Portfolio

Tuesday It is with mixed trepidation and expectation that we all make our way from the lobby into the chamber for Mr Brown's big day. Elections loom in Scotland and Wales, the councils are up for grabs in May, and there is a Europoll, too. I'm only surprised we haven't shoved a couple of referenda in there for good measure. Or perhaps we have, and I've forgotten about them.

Mr Brown, we know, is currently negotiating a course between the Scylla of inflation and the Charybdis of slump. The economic news from America is good, but it looks as though our German kameraden are making a right Lewinsky of their big opportunity. (God knows what M is doing, flitting to and from South Africa - it's Gerhard and Oskar who need him now. You can just imagine what a spot of creative Millbanking would do to cramp Lafontaine's distinctly old SPD style.)

On our side - Kunning Ken (as Starbuck calls him) and Diane Abbott aside - there is a great deal of nervous trust placed in our Chancellor. We keep being told by various press Jeremiahs that things are just about to go horribly wrong, and that the world economy is on the brink of a deflation that would do justice to a Richard Branson world record attempt. And yet unemployment is still falling and interest rates are coming down. The journalists may hate us, but the voters are still onside. Will it continue?

I perch my bum on the steps of one of the passageways and gaze across at the opposition. I don't come here very often, and it is a shock to me to see how terrible they all look. Even the announcement that Michael Howard is to step down doesn't seem to have cheered them up. It must be hard if the only thing you have to look forward to is the prospect of a recession.

My eye falls upon the figure of that nouvelle Hagueite, Dr Julian Swyne, my opposite number, now hoping - I would imagine - to benefit from the departure of Mr Howard. His grey hair is heaped up in clusters on top of his pale forehead, his eyes burn with a mad intensity and he greets his colleagues with a red-lipped grin that would grace a horror film. For better or for worse I decide to use him as my Budget barometer. The happier he appears, the worse I know things are; if he seems to be anxious and agitated, then Mr Brown will be heading for another triumph.

The Chancellor begins with forecasts and optimistic perorations that have Swyne jigging in his seat with mock laughter, or catcalling while looking to his fellow Tories for approbation and support. My heart sinks slightly. Has Mr Brown got it right? As we wade through an incomprehensible list of tax breaks for companies, the old ticker lifts again, because the Tories have fallen silent. Swyne's jeers have become more muted and more intermittent.

And now we are in full swing. There's dosh here for school books, dosh there for pensioners, dosh everywhere for children. Even the abolition of Miras fails to raise anything more than a half-hearted sneer from Swyne. When we get to the bit about the ten pence rate and it being introduced practically on Monday week, Swyne falls completely silent, and then begins to turn his head from side to side, trying to see if any of his pals have discovered a hidden catch. They haven't.

And then comes the coup de grace. With his last words Mr Brown cuts the basic rate of income tax, and every Tory is confronted with his or her worst nightmare: the please-'em-all Budget that they always wanted to bring in, but never could. And now Swyne is crying gently, small sobs wracking his sorrowful frame. I feel almost sorry for him.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet