Almost exactly 50 years ago, Hugh Dalton, Attlee’s bumptious
Chancellor made an off-the-cuff reference to a reporter about the contents
of his Budget. Attlee’s biographer, Kenneth Harris, records that the Prime
Minister was ’astounded’, not so much because Dalton had been indiscreet,
’but because anybody in their senses had chosen to talk to a
Things have changed a bit since Dalton resigned - ’a perfect ass’ in
Attlee’s view - with Budget secrecy now honoured in the breach rather than
in the observance. Indeed, I concluded approximately 17 years ago that
Budget secrecy was one of the great hypocrisies of modern government.
Chancellors prepare their Budgets in close consultation with the Prime
Minister and other affected ministers who, until the morning of the
Budget, are left to draw overall conclusions from the tax proposals on
The secrecy within the machine is elaborate and obsessive. Every effort is
made, in my experience, to ensure that the chief press secretary is kept
in the dark.
And then comes the Sunday press immediately before the Tuesday Budget,
when several more veils are lifted on the Chancellor’s thoughts. I recall
one year in the 1980s when a G-string bikini left more to the
So don’t let’s fall for the idea, assiduously and inevitably cultivated by
the Tories, that Chancellor Gordon Brown was unduly incontinent. He
Like other Chancellors I could mention, he got away Scot-free because,
unlike the foolish Dalton, he did not personally let out the
But others did, in order to disarm the public of the unpleasant bits.
Thus we learned, for example, about the so-called ’windfall profits’ tax
on the utilities, the attack on personal pensions, and the reduction in
mortgage tax relief. And lo, the actual measures seemed less harsh than
On the morning of the Budget, the Financial Times was used to cultivate
City opinion with a reference to a five-year Budget deficit programme
which it should have known was incorporated in Tory plans. But the
’goodies’ were kept back. We heard of corporation tax cuts, help for small
firms, and the advance raid on the contingency reserve to boost spending
on health and education on the day.
It was out of the top drawer of Treasure cynicism. I have seen it all
before. It is PR short-termism at its purest. All that concerns them is
the initial reaction. This ranged from a sigh of relief to adoration.
But what really matters is how Mr Brown’s first Budget looks in one and
five years’ time. The shine is already coming off it and by next year it
might look as shabby as the layabouts it rightly aims to put to work.