John Woodcock: The balancing act of Budget leaks

Team Treasury has clocked up a mixed scorecard for its Budget media operation.

John Woodcock: The balancing act of Budget leaks
John Woodcock: The balancing act of Budget leaks

Some of the proposals trailed in advance have got a decent hearing when they might have fallen apart under detailed scrutiny. Others, like the chaotic 50p tax rate leak, have given the impression of a process teetering out of control.

As the dust settles, George Osborne could endure a backlash from his leaking of announcements.

I am aware that a former adviser to Gordon Brown ought to tread carefully in this territory; governments of both stripes have long moved on from the days of strict Budget purdah.

In the past, more than one chancellor felt compelled to resign for failing to keep the lid on proposals. If the same standards were applied in more recent decades, successive chancellors would have had to be publicly flogged in Parliament Square for their indiscretion. But Osborne has taken Budget trailing to a whole new level.

Why? Well, the most difficult time for governments often comes 48 hours after a Budget, after the opposition and independent experts have had a chance to analyse all the bits ministers wanted to keep quiet about. So the potential gains from setting out the stall in advance are clear: ministers get to control the flow of information and they can float broad themes without releasing detail And they can be helped by media outlets that may not give the opposition the same right of reply they would for an official announcement.

But there are potential downsides. If the Speaker of the House of Commons thinks ministers are disrespecting the legislature he can make life difficult. So far, this administration has been prepared to accept the odd duffing up in the chamber as a worthwhile price for favourable headlines in advance. But it is unwise to stretch the patience of John Bercow too far.

A bigger problem may be that blowing so much in advance could make even starker the fundamental bad news underlined by the Budget figures themselves: that the economy has stalled and the Government is failing the basic test of fairness.

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

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