TORY Chancellors like being populists. The bigger the Tory toff in Number 11, the more populist they strive to appear. For their job is to win elections by handing out enough goodies to the electorate to put the requisite number of ample Tory bottoms on the green leather benches of Westminster. The quiet pay-off to the City of London, the hedge funds, the foreign exchange dealers, billionaire oligarchs and the big land owners comes later.

So anyone naïve enough to think George Osborne was going to get up in the Commons yesterday and announce he intended robbing the poor to pay the rich, was in for a disappointment. On the contrary, the Chancellor delivered a confident, jokey and artful budget – one of his best. I bet a few of his pithy phrases will enter the history books: “The comeback country” and “£10 off the tank with the Tories!”

True, Osborne wrong-footed some commentators by not easing up on his austerity programme during the next two years.

He could easily have done so. The unexpected fall in oil prices has reduced inflation. Falling inflation means the Treasury pays out less in interest charges on its inflation-linked debt. As a result, the Chancellor finds himself with around £6 billion in the kitty that, as late as last December, he expected to have to use in servicing the National Debt.

The Chancellor has actually tightened the fiscal spanner for the period till the end of 2017. He is using his newly found cash – including money to be generated from flogging off bits of the banks taken into public ownership during the crisis – to eliminate the annual deficit a year earlier than planned in December’s Autumn Statement. From 2018 (assuming George is still in Number 11) Britain will run an annual budget surplus. That is, raise more in tax than it spends. The difference will be used to reduce the total National Debt.

But here is the Osborne curve-ball: yesterday’s Budget radically cut the scale of the budget surplus planned for the last three years of the next parliament. In other words, Osborne is preparing a significant fiscal easing in the run-up to the 2020 General Election. This is a reversal of what he was planning even in December, when he aimed to cut public spending as a share of GDP to a post-war low. Now he has robbed Labour and the SNP of that line of attack. Mind you, we still get cuts and we still get a budget surplus, only the numbers have been rejigged as a publicity exercise. Such is our populist Chancellor’s genuine commitment to repairing economic fundamentals.

True to form, Osborne scattered about pre-election goodies. Some are actually sensible – such as eliminating National Insurance contributions for the under-21s. It seems daft to tax jobs but not tax accumulated wealth. And I am sure the avian life on Pitcairn Island are happy the British taxpayer is funding a new bird sanctuary for them. The Chancellor also used the time-honoured tactic of offering jam tomorrow, daring Ed Balls to take it back if Labour forms the next government. So the higher-rate income tax threshold goes up to £43,300 – but only in 2017. Osborne is also giving young prospective house buyers £3,000 if the save £12,000 towards a deposit, in the form of a special ISA. Expect a lot of middle-class parents to write cheques for the ISA. Pity about the kids in the housing schemes who will miss out.

Of course, there is a lot of sleight-of-hand – if not downright chicanery – in this budget. Osborne’s plans to promote a “northern powerhouse” based on Greater Manchester, as an economic counterweight to London, is a case in point. This amounts to little more than a rebranding exercise. What the Chancellor failed to mention is that the spending of local authorities in England has been cut in real terms by an astonishing 23.4 per cent per citizen since 2010. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, these cuts fell heaviest on deprived areas. And the poor will only get poorer in this budget, which aims to take another £12 billion per annum off the welfare budget – good reason to ensure welfare policy is devolved to Holyrood.

OSBORNE had to make some announcement about cutting the main North Sea oil taxes. The fact that he is back-dating the cuts in petroleum revenue tax and supplementary charges to January does not mitigate the fact that he held off intervening until now, the better to grab budget headlines before the election. Nevertheless, Oil & Gas UK, the industry trade body, thinks the new measures will bring an additional £4bn of capital investment, enabling the development of 500 million barrels of oil equivalent, worth £20 billion. It is just a pity it was Osborne, and his Treasury sidekick Danny Alexander, who put up those taxes in the first place, but didn’t see fit to save them in an oil fund for just such an emergency.

In reality, yesterday’s budget was a tame affair. What did strike me as unique was the Chancellor’s dangerously triumphalist rhetoric. Not only did he suggest the UK would overtake Germany as Europe’s largest economy – difficult given our manufacturing weakness – he also proclaimed his aim to make the UK the “most prosperous” of the big industrial economies. But prosperous for whom? If there is any sense in such daft prognostications, it is this. Osborne views the current crisis in the Eurozone as the opportunity for British finance capitalism to reassert global dominance. Tory ambitions to dismantle the welfare state have to be seen in that light. Not as right-wing hubris but as a strategic goal of reducing national tax overheads, so that a repaired British finance capital can get back in the global exploitation game.

That is a Tory fantasy. The ticking time bomb in this budget is Osborne’s stark refusal to take into account what is happening in the rest of the world. The latest Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) report, published alongside the Budget, warns that global trade is about to slacken. Though the Chancellor trumpeted an increase in the OBR forecast for UK growth this year (to 2.5 per cent), he passed over a revision downward in 2017 and 2018. In fact, these growth figures are fairly pedestrian. Plus there are storm clouds gathering in the world economy that could blow the UK on to the rocks, particularly if it still pursues austerity.

Strong US growth data suggests the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates soon. The markets are already pricing in not one but three marginal adjustments this year – starting as early as June. That is very bad news for the rest of the world. Since 2000, non-American companies – mostly in Asia – have borrowed $7 trillion in US currency. There is no-one to pick up the pieces if debtors fail and illiquidity grips the global banking system, which is precisely what could happen when the Fed starts raising rates. We could be heading for global capital flight and tit-for-tat currency devaluations. In which case, George Osborn’s little election Budget will be toast.