Opinion: Budget disputes should be private

Westminster is always dominated by the Budget at this time of year, but it has never been quite like this before.

Budget negotiations are rightly never a walk in the park as urgent priorities compete for finite resources, and the last Labour government's Budget-making was not exactly a model of good governance. As chancellor, Gordon Brown and his Treasury team kept the process so tight that even Tony Blair struggled to get a look in. Brown was apparently furious with Blair after the then PM announced out of the blue in a Sunday morning TV studio that Britain would seek to raise UK health spending to the EU average. 'You've stolen my f***ing Budget!' he was reported to have shouted.

But at least it was accepted back then that a public announcement meant a change in policy.

Under the new regime, Budget lockdown and the discipline of collective responsibility has been replaced by a frenzied public bidding process. Senior figures take to the airwaves to share with the nation what they would like to see in the Budget as if they were the PR guy from a pressure group, rather than a senior minister bound by collective responsibility.

First Nick Clegg pops up to argue for an increase in personal allowance rates for income tax. He is the one of the people supposed to be making the decisions.

And in the past week or so there have been at least three different positions on child benefit, with the Treasury, Number 10 and Clegg contradicting each other as they muse on how to back out of their increasingly problematic pledge to deny the benefit to households with a higher rate taxpayer.

Steering the ship of state is rarely a smooth or graceful process when observed up close. Perhaps the public will give the coalition credit for bringing an unprecedented level of transparency to a messy business. This week's 'chaos' headlines may in time be eclipsed by pundits applauding a brave and honest new approach.

Or people may demand that those who govern on their behalf get a grip and sort out their differences in their Whitehall offices rather than TV studios.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown.

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