Post by David Gibson
Budget Day is a curious old thing. Like much of parliamentary business, it is essentially just another tradition accompanied by some peculiar formalities. Take for example, the obligatory cheesy photo-op as the proud Chancellor thrusts high his red box of joy to the insatiable paparazzi. Then there are those special budget day perks, as the Chancellor enjoys such annual privileges as dinner with the Queen and even a boozy tipple as he presents his work, should he be so inclined. There is even time for a passing nod to Cabinet scrutiny as, a mere few hours before the Budget is announced, the Cabinet are informed of the glorious detail with very little time to do anything about it.
And then the eager world finds out the much anticipated changes to the revenue of the realm. Except, of course, they don’t. Most of the big changes have already been announced and the less appealing bits leaked, after all what Chancellor would like his annual day in the limelight ruined by headlines about tax on cigarettes?
So what do we know about tomorrow’s budget? We know there is somewhere in the realm of £8 - £9 billion extra pocket money than had previously been anticipated. Will it be spent on something juicy? Probably not, after all there are uncertain times ahead. Big spending plans would, of course, go against the narrative of responsible action of deficit cutting and damage confidence in the Coalition’s recovery plans.
Yes, but what of the detail? Well, most of that we know too. How? Because Boy George told us himself, or rather told the Andrew Marr Show viewers. There will be those fashionable apprenticeships and work placement programs to combat youth unemployment; there will be more attempts to redistribute job creation away from the South East (enterprise zones, seem likely); and there will be efforts to increase the competitiveness of British business against overseas competitors. Most of all there will unequivocally not be ‘more tax increases or more spending cuts’. Instead, it will most likely be all about growth and, given Cameron’s recent rhetoric, green.
Not specific enough, eh? Well, there has been a lot of talk about merging NI contributions with income tax recently. For those partial to the occasional flutter, it seems your money’s fairly safe with the announcement of an aspiration to do so. And so it is with scrapping the planned rise in fuel duty after Cameron’s not so subtle hints. There are even some suspiciously precise figures floating around about income tax thresholds and taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
So do we really need Budget Day? Long gone are the days of the tradition of ‘purdah’ when leaking details of the Budget could end the career of a Chancellor. The chase for headlines and the media’s habit of reporting the gospel of ‘informal sources’ make secrecy neither in the interest of the creators, nor the reporters. Post-election changes in the narrative of government policy is effectively set out in the Queen’s Speeches and at party conference. Surely, it would be better to end the pomp and ceremony (and ensuing media circus) and allow the figures to be released slowly under proper scrutiny? Why are we so interested in covering the release of largely anticipated figures that are almost certainly to be rubber stamped by Parliament?
Others would argue that the media frenzy it inspires is precisely why we should have the Budget. Firstly, in much of the coverage there is scrutiny not just of the figures but of the Chancellor as a politician. Brown came to be associated with showmanship and dishonesty, imposing ‘stealth taxes’ and ‘triple counting’. More positive views of him in his early days as solid and prudent, drinking mineral water while balancing the budget, came as an antithesis to the more relaxed, abstinence-tomorrow budgets of Scotch-supping Clarke. Budget Day is a day for everyone to focus on who is making economic policy and for the majority who only casually follow political developments to discuss the man and measures in the homes and pubs of the nation.
Most importantly, there is a certain psychological impact to the appearance of a Chancellor, confidently waving his red box high, and announcing over a brandy (or mineral water) the nice and accurate figures of a thoughtful and capable government looking to the future. After all, the tradition of an annual budget began with Robert Walpole’s attempts to restore public confidence in the state’s ability to control the disastrous after-shocks of the South Sea Bubble and the consequent need to reduce interest payments on the national debt. Just as last year’s budget was successfully sold as reassurance that Britain’s finances could be fixed, so too will the markets be watching carefully tomorrow for any tell-tale signs of wobbling resolve.