How the Treasury yet again pulled the PR rabbit out of the Budget hat

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 journalist’.

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

journalist’.



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

their patch.



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

imagination.



So don’t let’s fall for the idea, assiduously and inevitably cultivated by

the Tories, that Chancellor Gordon Brown was unduly incontinent. He

wasn’t.



Like other Chancellors I could mention, he got away Scot-free because,

unlike the foolish Dalton, he did not personally let out the

information.



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

carefully predicted.



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.



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