Modernisers trash Budget traditions

IN the not too distant past, Budgets were great occasions of state. The Chancellor would go into purdah for weeks before his annual speech, refusing to talk or discuss details of his plans.

By Graham Dines

IN the not too distant past, Budgets were great occasions of state. The Chancellor would go into purdah for weeks before his annual speech, refusing to talk or discuss details of his plans. Leaks to the media were investigated by senior servants and were almost a hanging offence.

The photo opportunity of the Chancellor holding up the famously battered red box containing all the Budget secrets was a solemn occasion. How pious did Rab Butler and later Roy Jenkins look, emerging into the daylight as the nation waited on the Chancellor's every word.

The Chancellor would be surrounded by either his ministerial team or his family as he prepared to make the short journey from 11 Downing Street to the House of Commons.

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At home, people would be listening intently on their radios or watching studio discussions on television, trying to appreciate how 2p on Corporation Tax, a 1p off income tax, and a bob or two on a bottle of scotch would affect their family budgets.

Not any more. One of the most cynical acts of this most cynical of governments has been to marginalise Parliament to such an extent that it positively authorises leaks, telling favoured journalists in advance almost all the details contained in the statement.

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That's how we all knew that vehicle excise duty for gas guzzling cars would rocket, that education spending would rise, and why the ambition of taking more families out of poverty - perhaps Mr Brown's most praiseworthy achievement during 10 years in the job - would be further met.

Gordon Brown reads his speech at a rate of knots. It took him around 48 minutes to get through it, while a more measured delivery would have taken him an hour, about the length of time most Budgets statement took pre-1997.

It's as if he is so excited by all the great news he has to deliver, that he's determined to get to the punch line as soon as possible.

And like most Chancellors, there was a punch line. It was one he hoped would knock David Cameron off course - tradition has it that the Leader of the Opposition always replies to the Budget, with little time to prepare.

Mr Brown, having announced that there would now be just two tax rates, triumphantly told MPs that the basic rate of income would be cut from 22p to 20p.

Then he sat down and started across the floor of the Commons, the look on his face telling the Tories to “beat that”.

It was a clever wheeze. It was unexpected. And it echoed the great Budget speech of Ted Heath's Chancellor Tony Barber.

Having been pressed by Labour MPs for weeks to get rid of this European tax, he told the House that he couldn't abolish VAT. But as Labour jeered like a collective rugby club Saturday night rabble, Barber shouted: “But I am going to cut the rate in half.”

Brilliant stuff. And Labour MPs behind the Chancellor yesterday firmly believed that Gordon had done a Barber.

That the income tax finesse didn't throw the Conservative leader off course will be worrying those self same Labour MPs who will depend on Brown at the next election to keep them in a job. The opinion polls indicate Gordon Brown will fare badly against Mr Cameron at the next election - and here was an example of Cameron more than holding his own.

The Tories have been savaged by Labour for saying that taxes can be cut and public services improved - sharing the proceeds of growth.

Totally unprepared for the 2p cut in tax announcement, Mr Cameron was quick witted. He said Mr Brown was conceding what the Tories had said all along - “you can increase spending and you can cut taxes. Yes, you can share the proceeds of growth”.

And it was soon realised that the 2p cut is being paid for by the abolition of the 10p rate of tax and an increase in National Insurance contribution. It sounded good, but few people will be any better off.

Time will tell whether Dave can sustain his unforeseen popularity or whether Gordon's statesmanship will win over the hearts and minds of the electorate. One thing's certain - the ponderous post Budget speech by the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ming Campbell will not have caused the two heavyweights any loss of sleep.

In purely political terms, the Budget's significance has been undermined by the autumn statement, an interim pre-Budget announcement the Tories introduced and which Gordon Brown has kept going. Under Labour, the Budget is merely a vehicle for some good old fashioned point scoring.

It was Gordon's last Budget. Even if the unthinkable were to happen and he's not elected to succeed Tony Blair, it's inconceivable that a new Prime Minister would keep him on at the Treasury.

Mr Brown doesn't do jokes easily. But he warmed up MPs with a jibe against former top civil servant Lord Turnbull, who earlier had described his governing style as “Stalinist”.

Thanking the Civil Service for their hard work and, “on occasions, their forthright advice”' in preparing his Budget, he drew cheers and laughter from the House of Commons by adding “or should I say comrades?”

And making no secret that he expects to move into No 10 within weeks, he added: “I am told that in the last two centuries only one other Chancellor has delivered 11 budgets, and then a 12th, and that was when Mr Gladstone combined the position of Chancellor with Prime Minister - something no-one should ever contemplate doing again.”

Perhaps Gordon has a sense of humour after all.

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