Tough, but fair. Tough enough to have satisfied, nay, perhaps even pleased the solemn-faced foreign financial gnomes from Moody's and Standard & Poor's. Yet not so tough as to scare the living daylights out of the average punter back home - at least not until he or she reads the fine print.

Bill English's first Budget has to be judged a political triumph in not only meeting its immediate objective of averting a downgrade in New Zealand's international credit rating, but instead securing an unexpected upgrading of New Zealand's outlook from negative to stable.

However, the belt-tightening the document sets in train in the public sector could see this Budget haunt National come election year. That was far from English's or John Key's thoughts yesterday as they celebrated Standard & Poor's upgrading as the icing on National's cake.

The jubilation was justified. The Budget will give National untold credit come the time when the voters make judgments about the respective parties' economic management credentials.

Just as well, perhaps. The big black mark against the document is the almost cavalier gutting of the Cullen superannuation fund and with it what was left of the shallow consensus on pension policy.

By flagging a likely decade-long halt on Government contributions to the fund, National will have inevitably reopened the Pandora's Box surrounding eligibility and entitlements long-term. Being so definitive about how long the fund will be out in the cold may have been a political mistake.

There was also a lot of talk about "productivity" in English's Budget speech. There is little concrete as to how to lift it. The short-term emphasis on credit ratings, however, pushed questions about how National intends lifting New Zealand's economic game into the background.

The major political reservation is whether English is buying himself election-year trouble.

Another word that pops up regularly in the Budget is "challenge" - a euphemism for the difficulty he and his colleagues will have in terms of stickability in restraining the inexorable rise in Government spending.

English has set himself some pretty demanding targets for reining in spending over the longer term, although he had little choice if he was to impress the rating agencies.

In particular, he intends limiting new spending to a little over $1 billion in the 2011 election-year Budget. Labour was spending up to $3.5 billion extra each year in Michael Cullen's later Budgets.

This Budget's tracking of Government spending indicates many areas, including health, are going to have to find big cost savings or face what will be effective spending cuts.

The belt-tightening is obscured by the relatively large increase in spending over the coming year - some $3 billion in part to ride out the recession and in part to soften the impact of the downturn on the less well-off who lose their jobs.

Basically, English is punting on the Treasury being accurate in predicting the economy will start pulling out of recession early next year.

It is a gamble.

The major risk is the economy is still in a slump going into election year with unemployment hitting a projected 10 per cent at the very time National's cutback in the scale of previous spending increases really starts to bite on services.

Key and English will argue it will not come to that and a lot can happen and change in the intervening two years.

However, though hero now, English could quickly be zero should the economic cards continue to fall the wrong way.