Mary Riddell writes:
Short of jumping out of a cake while singing Pennies From Heaven, there was not much George Osborne could do to spring any surprises as he delivered his pre-digested Budget. That did not make it any easier for Ed Miliband. Mr Osborne had the figleaf of increased personal allowances to offer, courtesy of Nick Clegg. In cutting the top tax rate, as expected, he had dug a Miliband-shaped trap for an Opposition reluctant to commit itself to reinstating 50p.
So the Chancellor must have hoped for an easy win. Just to add to Mr Miliband's discomfiture. he threw in a joke about Wallace and Gromit. Mr Osborne was to be disappointed. Mr Miliband was good. He was better than good to judge by the squirms of government front-benchers invited to say whether they would personally profit from a "Millionaires' Budget."
A low blow, perhaps, but Mr Miliband at least avoided the charge of haplessness. He also managed to puncture the grandiosity of a Chancellor claiming, with scant evidence, to be honouring Adam Smith's four economic canons. In a series of crisp putdowns, he nailed the crux of the unfairness in this Budget. Can it be right that the poor will only work harder if you make them poorer, while the reverse applies to the very rich?
Labour will be mightily relieved. The Miliband team had expected the Osborne Budget to be full of the traps once set by Gordon Brown, but there were few unexpected twists. The low return from the 50p rate might have stymied Mr Miliband: instead he turned it to his advantage. The government's decision to claw back money from the elderly, which Labour had not anticipated, is sure to play to the Eds' advantage.
The Opposition still has plenty to worry about; not least its internal tensions. Some senior figures inclined to see Ed Balls as a liability will have to compel themselves to treat him as a major asset. If Labour as a whole does not learn to love its brilliant, if abrasive, shadow chancellor, it can hardly expect the nation to do so.
But even before voters' verdict is in on the Osborne Budget, Labour can afford to breathe again. This may turn out to be the day when Ed Miliband proved himself fit to lead the country.