By any standards, Gordon Brown’s third Budget speech was a tour de
force: passionate, witty, and delivered with superb timing. The
accountants with whom I watched the speech were visibly moved by the
power of the pronouncements.
However, following its delivery, the speech became more remarkable for
its obvious attempt at media manipulation than the probity of its
After Brown sat down last Tuesday afternoon and the 70 or so press
statements were released it soon became clear that this was a Budget of
smoke and mirrors.
Apart from wit and timing, the Chancellor included other less reputable
presentational techniques, such as only telling half the story. Take the
10p starting rate of income tax. Only from reading the press releases
could you glean that with it would come the abolition of the 20p rate,
which in effect made the tax reduction non-existent for all but those on
extremely low wages. It was the same story with National Insurance
contributions. Here Brown borrowed the old retailing trick of raising
prices in advance of a sale. He had already announced that contributions
were to rise, so any reduction was marginal. But the media lapped it up
at face value.
Even with the modern trend towards short Budget speeches of just an
hour, the newspapers have very little time to do anything other than
fill their columns with direct reportage if they are to hit deadlines.
Scope for interpretation, particularly when there are so many press
releases to go through, is limited. The Chancellor clearly banked on the
print media taking his speech at face value. It was only the following
day that the penny dropped. And then there were other announcements to
focus on. This was well crafted media management.
Result: a highly polished, inspirational performance on the day that had
not only MPs but the country at large cheering the Chancellor on,
coupled with carefully targeted follow-up announcements designed to
throw would-be budget analysts off the scent. However, Brown probably
has two more Budget speeches to make.
Next time, commentators ought to scrutinise the small print of the press
releases before chorusing blind approval.