Last year’s Budget was marred by numerous policy U-turns and plentiful and unco-ordinated leaks that resulted in Chancellor George Osborne having no good news left in his arsenal.
Public affairs professionals have noted the Government’s improved discipline in pre-Budget comms this year, but Bell Pottinger Public Affairs managing director Stephen Lotinga suggested Osborne would again have little left up his sleeve on Budget day itself.
The Treasury was unavailable to comment, but Lotinga said: ‘My understanding is there is not a lot in the Budget this year and the Government was desperately concerned about how it was going to hit its new deficit reduction targets, rather than any of the giveaways.
‘The Government has taken a very proactive role to try to steer discussion towards childcare, pensions, social care and raising the personal allowance, which are all old announcements… it pre-briefed [them] because it was desperately aware the focus of the Budget was going to be on further cuts.’
Lotinga predicted further pain for Osborne as he faced revealing figures on Wednesday that show by how much he has fallen further behind on reducing the deficit. But former Daily Mail lobby journalist Kirsty Walker believes the Treasury comms team has learned from Osborne ‘coming unstuck’ last year.
‘Last year, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were briefing out different messages,’ she said. ‘I feel the Treasury was a bit surprised by some of the stuff appearing that it hadn’t necessarily wanted to get out in advance.’
Open Road founder Graham McMillan agreed, blaming dislocation between the coalition parties, as well as policy designed by civil servants that did not make sense from a political point of view.
He detected Number 10 getting involved earlier this year, but warned better pre-briefing was no guarantee of success.
He said the Government could still end up on the wrong side of the maxim that ‘Budgets that appear very good the day after don’t look as good two days after’.
PR chiefs voice disapproval of pre-Budget messages
Two out of three PR leaders believe the Government’s handling of its key economic messages in the Budget run-up had either been poorly or very poorly controlled,according to a PRCA survey.
The poll of agency bosses and in-house comms directors found that 50 per cent said it was ‘poorly controlled’ and 19 per cent said it was ‘very poorly controlled’.
The respondents were pessimistic about the Budget’s likely impact on UK economic growth, with none answering its effect would be ‘significantly’ positive. Instead, eight per cent said it would be ‘significantly negative’, 28 per cent said it would be ‘marginally negative’ and 47 per cent said it would have no impact.
The survey suggested a lack of support for Osborne’s ‘Plan A’, with 50 per cent claiming he should not continue with the strategy, while 39 per cent claimed he should.
Alistair Clay, director of Arc Seven Communications, said: ‘The "we’re all in it together" message has become completely lost. There is a sense that society has become completely unjust and divided under the pressures of austerity.
‘Osborne needs to find some way to invoke the Blitz spirit and create a far greater sense of national unity in tough times if he wants to improve his party’s electoral fortunes.’
Tax U-turns 2012
Greggs and the Cornish pasty industry were up in arms about George Osborne’s plan to charge VAT on hot food designed to cool down, which was dubbed the ‘pasty tax’. It was scrapped after two months of embarrassment for Osborne and David Cameron, who looked out of touch.
VAT was also on the agenda for static caravans, with Osborne forced into rowing back from a 20 per cent rate to a five per cent rate.
The plan was to limit relief on charitable donations to £50,000, or 25 per cent of a person’s income, which charities successfully lobbied against.
£7bn Predicted increase in Government borrowing for 2012-13*
1.2% Forecast for economic growth during 2013**
4 Number of Budgets George Osborne will have delivered as Chancellor
£2.5bn The amount ministers will have to find in extra spending cuts***
Source: *Institute for Fiscal Studies; **Office for Budget Responsibility; ***Various reports