On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.
Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.
Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.
Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie Whelan, Ed Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.
Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.
It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.
Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.
As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”
The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.
Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.
The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.