George Eustice: Budget tactics notch up a gear

The military action in Libya has dominated the news agenda this week, creating another complication for those charged with getting their message across in Wednesday's Budget.

The Budget speech is one of those set-piece events that belong to the Government. The Chancellor should use it carefully to make a statement about his priorities. There has been much speculation and background briefing, but it is always crucial to keep a surprise in reserve. By the time you read this, you will know what that was.

Despite the length and complexity of the Budget, it is important for both sides to have a central message. It is clear the Government's message will be to underline the steps being taken to deliver growth and jobs. Labour will claim that the pace of change is too fast.

Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, ruthlessly used the occasion of the Budget to dominate the news agenda and wrong-foot his opponents with carefully laid tactical announcements that were generally swallowed by the media, whether or not they added up.

In opposition, the Conservatives eventually honed a successful strategy of sticking to their top-line message on day one, but then getting the best economists working through the night to dissect the various tables tucked away in the Budget appendices. They then launched a counter attack between Thursday and Sunday, so that the central premise of the Budget unravelled.

It paid off. The past few Budgets over which Brown presided backfired spectacularly. Once he was found out, the media came back with a vengeance, craving every little detail they knew he would have attempted to hide from them. The result was something akin to an Easter egg hunt. Suddenly, Thursday's and Friday's papers competed to find the nuggets of information they knew the Sundays would otherwise find.

Having taken Brown apart over his smoke-and-mirrors tactics, George Osborne realised early on that he would have to be different, hence the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility.

It will result in more moderate claims on Budget days, but also an agenda that is far more resilient when tested by the media.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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