OPINION: Pre-Budget 'spinning' already well underway

Once a year the Government has a golden opportunity to get its message across because for one day at least the whole nation watches and listens to politics. I am, of course, referring to the Chancellor's Budget, which is scheduled for 17 April.

Even the Prime Minister never gets such a golden opportunity and that's why Number 10 always try to sabotage the day, either by forcing the Chancellor to change his plans or by leaking details to undermine the Treasury.

Gordon Brown, however, is far too canny to be blown off course by Tony Blair and his henchmen. Brown simply refuses to give details of the Budget to anyone next door and the conversations he has with Blair are usually private, with no advisers present.

For Brown's first Budget the incumbent civil servants in Number 10 were appalled that they didn't have a clue what Brown was up to, but they were powerless to do anything about it. In Whitehall, knowledge is power and once Brown established that all knowledge on the Budget would stay in the Treasury, that is where the power stayed.

Brown knows better than anyone that the Budget is a wonderful PR opportunity. It gives him the chance to spell out the policies he believes in and also the chance to differentiate himself from the blandness of Blair.

When I was at the Treasury I often wondered what it would be like if we brought in a PR company for a few months to handle the whole Budget process (including the strategically-placed leaks).

It would have been an interesting exercise but I don't think they would handle it any differently.

The ending of the tradition of the Chancellor keeping his mouth shut for months before the big day would have been applauded by any PRO. Why keep your biggest hitter out of the limelight?

Last weekend Brown wrote an emotional piece for the News of the World about the NHS and his experience with the death of his daughter. The message was clear. If we want a better NHS then taxes will have to rise.

The Chancellor and his team will spend the next few weeks moulding people's expectations with nods, winks and even a few leaks - some true and some not. This is probably the most important task the Treasury spinners have.

One year we got The Daily Telegraph in such a lather about plans to tax the middle-classes that when Brown didn't, their headline the day after the Budget was 'Brown saves Middle Classes'. I've still got a copy of it hanging proudly on my study wall.

Any decent PR firm would tell the Chancellor not to hit people where it hurts and so far he hasn't. The two main taxes - VAT and income tax - have not gone up with Labour and, apart from the brief petrol problem, all other tax changes have gone through with little or no fuss - so far.

The Chancellor has, however, got good publicity from small changes such as abolishing betting tax and not raising tax on whisky (which has gone down particularly well in his home country).

The budget day itself is a PR dream. Because the Treasury controls who knows what, they dictate the news agenda completely.

These days, the TV companies are even tipped off in the morning about what to expect. So if the main theme of the day is the NHS, camera crews are dispatched to hospitals and then guess what leads the news?

One picture that all the papers will want is one of Brown with his new red box and his wife Sarah outside Number 11 before he sets off to the Commons. They won't get it - Sarah has more important work to do.

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