The chancellor first Budget speech held few surprises having been leaked days in advance, now we need to decipher the small print

Alistair Darling’s iconic recycling of Gladstone’s budget box did rather more than try to distance himself from Mr Brown: it reminded us of a time when the budget was something exciting in public life. Now it’s neither one thing, nor the other. The headlines are routinely leaked in advance and the detail is left to the small print of the plethora of announcements that follow in the Budget’s wake. There was little of any consequence in Darling’s announcements that we didn’t already know, and what little there was comes with the suspicion that it may not be all that is seems until we’ve deciphered the small print.

David Cameron would have us believe that we are more in debt than we thought and GB hasn’t put enough by in the times of plenty to do much about it. If he’s right, then we have the choice of borrowing more (but surely not without definitively breaking “the golden rule”) or cutting expenditure; and this might be the sting in the tail for construction.

Many of us have thought that construction is recession-proof for the next few years because the government can’t achieve its policies without building more; and so it has seemed with the demand for the Olympics, more housing, schools, hospitals, prison places, roads and so on. But if these capital costs can no longer be afforded and it’s easy to blame lost promises on someone else (a global credit crunch) then perhaps we had all better tighten our belts.

There was certainly nothing of real interest for construction in the budget; more help for small businesses looks likely to be counter-balanced with more costs elsewhere; an extra £10m for training science teachers is paltry when spread nationwide (people win that much on the lottery); more funding for affordable homes looks attractive but one has to hedge the bet until the small print is deciphered – is it new money, old money or repackaged? In any event the package of housing and mortgage measures looks too thin and too far removed to have any likely impact in kick-starting the housing market.

The only really significant measure at face value is the decision to apply a zero carbon target to all new non-domestic buildings by 2019, although how that really helps to make a dent in moving us towards an 80% reduction in carbon by 2050 when in the next breath the chancellor supports expansion in airport capacity makes me heave with disbelief.

One gets the strong impression that the chancellor has been painted into a corner from which this is the best job he can do, which is not much. For all his personal faults and foibles, Gladstone was a politician; today’s politicians have to be sleight-of-hand magicians. Why can’t we go back to the days when we heard the Budget from the chancellor’s mouth and not in the “day before headlines” and the “day after reports”.