OPINION: The Brown Budget is a masterclass in PR

In Budget week, one can't help thinking how much the comms strategy has changed over the past decade or so.

For those of us who remember Labour governments dealing with constant economic crises, such as when James Callaghan went begging to the IMF to bail him out, Gordon Brown's ten years as Chancellor have been somewhat refreshing.

When I went to work for Brown in opposition we faced a PR battle to make people believe they could trust Labour to run the economy. In opposition you can't actually do anything, only talk about doing things, so the strategy was all-important.

Brown told me he wanted to be seen as the Iron Chancellor, and so he went about telling everyone how tough and prudent he would be.

Once elected, no one really expected Brown to stick to his spending regime, but he did. Ken Clarke even privately admitted that the Tories never could have done the same. It is often forgotten but the Chancellor also cut income tax in his second Budget, having cut corporation tax in his first.

Together with giving independence to the Bank of England, Brown had already done enough to shed the Labour image of economic incompetence, and he certainly didn't need a mouthy spin doctor any longer.

But Brown's new strategy was much trickier: it involved raising taxes to pay for the much-needed investment in health and education. The PR trick here was always to talk of ‘investment'. It was important, too, that no pledges on taxation were broken.

For years the Chancellor had refused to say anything about tax except that income tax would not rise. The PM may have blundered in this regard from time to time but Brown was always more careful with his words - so when national insurance was raised there were no quotes that the Tories could throw back at him.

But Budgets have needed to be treated as specific PR initiatives. The private briefings of key broadcasters just before the Budget nearly always results in favourable reporting as these briefings set the agenda. That is a little trick I am proud of instigating - though at the time, Treasury mandarins thought I should be arrested for breach of security.

I've lost count of the number of shadow chancellors seen off by Brown, and it is significant that David Cameron turned down the job under Michael Howard, fearing a media mauling.
charlie.whelan@haymarket.com

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