It had been a good afternoon for Thomas Fielding. Just after George Osborne announced he was halving bingo duty to 10%, the 71-year-old got a full house and scooped the £130 jackpot at Mecca on the Hyde Road in east Manchester.
Bingo, said Fielding, was one of the few small pleasures left in life. "Breaks the monotony," he said gloomily, saying he planned to feed his winnings back into the £1 slots in the hope of winning bigger again.
Unlike most punters at the bingo in Manchester on Wednesday, he had paid keen attention to the budget. "I taped it. I like to keep a record of what he says now so he can't deny it later." He took credit for the chancellor's move to cut the tax bingo halls have to pay on their profits. "I signed a petition. We all did," he said, gesturing to the pink and purple neon-lit hall as it filled up for the evening's session.
Fielding's signature joined 330,000 others on a petition that was delivered direct to Osborne's door last month. Currently bingo halls pay 20% tax on their profits – compared with the 15% levied on sports betting operators and casinos – an unfair anomaly blamed, along with the smoking ban of 2007, for drastic closures in bingo halls across Britain. Eight years ago there were 600; now 380 survive, according to the Bingo Association.
Bingo halls insist they will pass on the duty cut to customers, perhaps slashing entry prices or beefing up prize pots.
But Osborne's move had gone unnoticed by most of the pensioners in the Hyde Road Mecca, who – contrary to the assessment of most Westminster commentators – didn't see the budget as a boon for them. The increase in the Isa limit to £15,000 was no use, said Carol MacCarroll, 64, "if you haven't got any money to save".
Marjorie Lowe, 67, who ran a fish and chip shop in Stalybridge before retiring, said there was little point saving in a tax-free Isa at the moment – "the interest rates are pathetic".
And anyway, she said, she couldn't afford to save: "We're not on the breadline, but we are just about keeping our heads above water." The increase of the personal allowance to £10,500 made no difference either, she said, because she and her husband received less than that with their combined pensions.
Lesley Rowbottom, a 33-year-old care assistant at a local hospital, was rather more impressed. She works 30 hours a week and earns £12,000 a year, currently paying around £150-£160 a month in income tax, which would decrease drastically under the new measures. But her approval is unlikely to result in an extra vote for the Conservatives in 2015, she explained: "I see David Cameron on telly and I just think, 'what do you know about real life, with your private schooling and posh upbringing? I've worked every day since I left school. Didn't go to college, it wasn't for me. I've never had a sick day, never been out of work either. And what do I earn? How can he possibly understand?"
Robert Halfon, the Harlow campaigning MP who successfully campaigned to freeze fuel duty, was singled out by George Osborne in his budget speech. "Now fuel duty is frozen, my honourable friend for Harlow has turned his talent and energy into a vigorous campaign to cut bingo duty," the chancellor said as he announced a halving of the duty to 10%.
Halfon is regarded as something of a folk hero by Tories in the 301 group of modernising MPs, who believe that the party can only ever hope to win a majority by tackling the cost-of-living crisis rather than talking about Europe.
The former Central Office staffer has maintained a high profile since his win in Harlow in 2010 by campaigning solely on bread-and-butter issues. He is interested in international affairs and once served as president of the Conservative Friends of Israel. But his website highlights his campaigns on helping people to buy their council houses and cutting the lower rate of tax to 10p.
While Halfon would like to see himself as the ultimate pavement politician, he is also the ultimate insider with both new and old Tories. He once served as chief of staff to David Cameron's policy chief Oliver Letwin, giving Halfon an inside track to the highest levels of government.
Halfon, who turns 45 on Saturday, is also at the heart of a trio of Conservatives who are playing a key role in shaping the party and may even assume its leadership in the next political generation. Halfon attended Exeter University at the same time as Sajid Javid, 44, the treasury minister and former banker, who is the rising star of the Osborne circle as the son of a bus driver. Tim Montgomerie, 43, the founder of the ConservativeHome website who is one of the most influential Tory thinkers, is the third member of the Exeter group. Halfon and Montgomerie will be key advisers to Javid if he ever contests the Tory leadership.