Since the election of May 1979, just under 31 years ago, the UK has had one change of power, in 1997, and two dominant politicians: Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990, and Tony Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007. The era that these charismatic politicians defined is now over. That is the biggest lesson to draw from the Budget delivered by Alistair Darling, chancellor of the exchequer.
What lies ahead is an era of harsh choices. Is there a politician to create something uplifting out of this disappointment? Mr Darling is not that man; nor is Gordon Brown, prime minister; nor, as far as I can see, is David Cameron, his Tory challenger. What stretches ahead is an epoch of diminished expectations.