By now you will all have your own views of the Budget. Does it tighten
the fiscal screw, as Chancellor Kenneth Clarke claims, or does his plan
to recover pounds 7 billion by closing tax loopholes and making a dead
set at fraudsters and smugglers represent a black hole in his
calculations? Has he blown the next election or laid the foundations
for a fifth Tory victory?
Assuming his sums add up, I think he has been astonishingly responsible
five months before an election. No doubt this is to reinforce the
Tories’ developing electoral appeal: responsibility versus the risks of
electing a Labour government.
But all this illustrates a democratic government’s difficulties in
putting over a clear message. A tower of babel seeks to confuse the
public immediately you deliver it. What is more, politicised leakers can
be at it 24 hours before the Chancellor has uttered a word, as we saw
last week. The Government was apparently saved from total embarrassment
by the Daily Mirror’s failing to exploit its leak because it now
disdains anything of substance. Triviality rules the Fourth Estate.
My presentational interest in the Budget is, however, more personally
professional. It is no secret that, once I had got my feet under the No
10 table, I grew increasingly restive over the then current style of
Budget making. This divorced revenue from expenditure. Budgets, in
March, were then preceded by a public expenditure review published the
As I record in my book Kill The Messenger, this meant that no sooner had
the Budget been delivered then the Government machine turned to
reviewing expenditure for the future. In July, Ministers, having lodged
exorbitant bids for higher spending, swore a Cabinet oath of loyalty to
the cause of restraint which many ignored in autumnal battles with the
Treasury. A ‘Star Chamber’ of the virtuous - Ministers who either didn’t
spend much or had agreed their budgets - was even introduced to put the
recalcitrant on the rack.
The media found this torture reporting highly diverting. They also
perpetuated the myth of a ‘cutting’ Government when all that was usually
happening was that excessive bids, as distinct from actual spending,
were being pruned. I campaigned to bring public spending round and
Budget together in one presentational package. Inertia reigned. It
couldn’t be done.
Then, in 1993, Mr Clarke suddenly brought the two together. The
preliminaries are now much more manageable and the Government’s
financing can be viewed as a whole in March. The moral of this tale for
PROs is simple: it can take the acorn of a sensible idea at least ten
years to root. Never despair.
Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express