Boxed in (by own boxes)
"Boxed in". That's how we describe the chancellor today as he approaches his second Budget. I used the same phrase myself, on last night's television news, and it's true: slow growth and a record-breaking deficit do seriously limit his room for manoeuvre.
But it's a reflection of how the chancellor has dominated this debate about fiscal austerity that we forget that the lack of wiggle room is self-imposed.
On paper, you might actually say that he did have some room to give some extra support to the economy. The Budget plans he laid out last year have him eliminating his target measure for borrowing - the structural current budget deficit - a year earlier than his own rules require. And that target measure itself excludes public investment. In theory, he could announce today that he was sharply raising his public investment plans for the next few years, to support the recovery, without loosening his fiscal strategy at all.
And yet, we're not talking about any of these things, and we don't think it's even a remote possibility. Why? Because he has made it central to his approach that there will be no change, no deviation - even if the deviation is actually consistent with his overall mandate.
Many economists would say this was a strength: you get your market credibility precisely by binding yourself to the mast, so you can be sure of resisting those siren calls when things get rough. If Mr Osborne had made it easy for himself to loosen the purse-strings, investors would not be so convinced that he would stay the course, and - he thinks - the government's cost of borrowing would now be higher.
That is why Mr Osborne has taken such a hard line against all talk of a Plan B - and, presumably, why he has allowed Ed Balls and other opponents to define "Plan B" as pretty much anything that was not in last year's Budget plans. It is also why even those sceptical of the chancellor's approach - like the FT - have said he has no alternative, now, but to press ahead. The financial markets would almost certainly take any deviation today as a sign that he was caving into pressure.
Depending on how you look at it, Mr Osborne's lack of flexibility is either his greatest asset - or his greatest weakness. Probably both. It makes it easier for him to hold the line against squealing backbenchers. But it does also make it more difficult for him to make even modest changes in response to economic events.
Lashing himself to the mast worked out well for Odysseus. He got to hear the sirens, the ropes held and the ship soon sailed on to safer waters. We all have to hope the same is true for the UK.