19 Mar 2012

A budget like no other?

Amazing to consider that leaking budget secrets cost a chancellor his job way back in 1947. Hugh Dalton had a chat with a hack about possible tax changes, and the rest is history.

It’s taken 64 years but suddenly there is seemingly little or no budget “purdah”. The options are out there in the public domain being raked over by the minute and the red box is still several days from being opened by Mr Dalton’s current successor, George Osborne.

But where once a Budget leak was a leak, is it now perhaps a signal of open government? Why shouldn’t the priorities, options, deals, and the rest, be out there for public debate? The Budget may yet prove to be the last bastion of old style “hole-in-the-corner” British political decision-making. “Market sensitive, old chap”, was the old cry. Yet right now, we are told that there has been considerable pre-Budget activity in the pensions arena against much discussed Budget changes to the pensions tax regime.

Budget life is unlikely ever to be the same again. But the wider question is perhaps whether government life itself will ever be the same again.

Once upon a recent time, a U-turn was seen as a damnable ministerial failure. But the coalition government has suddenly sprung a succession of U-turns on an unsuspecting populace. Is the U-turn itself is suddenly transmogrifying into a positive concept: a “listening government” even?

Many news outlets are still obsessed with argument and fall-out between ministers and MPs within the coalition. But then individual governing parties of the past have themselves been argumentative coalitions – it’s just that we less often got a full read out of what was going on.

Despite failure after failure at political reform, it seems the electorate may accidentally have brought it about without a single new law being passed. Is it too optimistic to suggest that the Budget leak, and the more commonplace U-turn, have ushered in a new age of ‘open government’, without any of us noticing?

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15 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:


    Worry not. The Tories and their lickspittles will do what they always do at times like this.

    That is, hand public assets to all their chums, ensure those with most pay less, increase poverty and hopelessness, add to unemployment, bribe the south east middle classes, and when all else fails – go to war.

    All of it will be “explained” by neocon suited up economic hoodlums at propaganda manufacturers such as Policy “Exhange” and the Adam Smith “Institute.”

    All of it will be utter lying garbage but mainstream media will of course seek to gain its acceptance by using terms like “reform” and “restructuring.”

    So in fact the Budget will be the same as all the others since 1980. There’s no mystery or sophistication in it. It’s the same old theft fronted with weasel words.

  2. Caliban says:

    The media attitude towards governments (and oppositions) changing their minds, has always appalled me.

    Businesses and individuals change their minds all the time. It’s the sensible thing to do. If other people offer convincing arguments about better ways, you do it the better way.

    Even more importantly, if the evidence shows something is not working and private enterprise changes it. If governments find something is not working they spend even more money on it!

    We (I really mean the media) have somehow created a situation where we expect our politicians to be omnipotent. And worse, any hint they are not, means they are publicly torn to pieces.

    This means that politicians are never allowed to say they got it wrong. But everybody gets it wrong sometimes, so as a result we can get obviously failing policies being kept because nobody wants to admit they were a mistake.

    I’m all for a robust and sceptical view of our leaders. But not to the point where they are terrified to do the right thing, because they once supported the wrong one.

    “The man who never made a mistake, never made anything.”

  3. Rachel says:

    Hello Jon, I hope you are well. These Budget leaks, I think, are not really leaks in the old fashioned, attempt to bring down the Government sense, no, they’re simply ideas being released, gently, into the community: a political tool, if you like, operated on a free platform provided by the media, to gauge, mainly, the media’s reaction. If Robert Peston thinks it’s a good idea- you can be sure it will in the Budget!

    Proper unauthorised leaks, the damaging ones, the ones that require a steaming-mad, ruddy-faced Prime Minister to face the cameras in Downing Street, and then launch an immediate inquiry into who leaked what and when, are the ones we see very few of these days.

    The U-Turns – well they’ve become very de riguer haven’t they– there’s nothing that shows you’re a more metro-sexual Minister than to change your mind, and not to pussy-foot around with tweaks here and there but to change it really properly- did I say forwards? Well perhaps but if we turn around and walk the other way, we’re still going forwards…aren’t we? That’s politics!



  4. Saltaire Sam says:

    Jon, have you been on the Polyanna pills? Time to go back to the Polly Toynbee variety!

    All they are doing is trying to create ‘old news’ for next Wednesday, so that we think we already know what is in the budget and don’t bother to look at the detail.

    One small example – 50p tax will be fazed out, counter balanced by ‘tough’ measures on tax avoidance and a bringing forward of the raised threshold. Nick Clegg will beam but so will Ozzie nd his rich pals.

    Because the tax dodging measures will probably never kick in – we’ve heard about them for years and nothing happens – and the raised threshold will do nothing for the very poorest who don’t pay tax and the benefits have been shown to be greatest for top earners, who will also benefit from the 50p reduction.

    I fear most people will shrug it off as ‘what we expected’ after all the leaks so it’s down to people like you and the other Polly to make sure people know we are about to be ripped off again.

  5. Moonbeach says:

    Politicians are about grasping power. They will only involve us if they judge that by doing so they have a better chance of obtaining/retaining power at the next election.

    Their idea of consutation is to issue a document and tell us what they are going to do regardless; gay marriage being a case in point! Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Just how small is the minority of homosexuals who want to call a civil partnership ‘marriage’ and at what cost to the taxpayer and businesses in reprinting their processes and procedures?

    But those issues which have a clear majority; the EU, Human Rights, Benefits, Immigration, war in Afghanistan and Libya, Capital punishment have all floundered on the ‘rock’ of “Coalition Politics”.

    Cameron is a ‘Blair lookalike’ supported by a ‘little man’ opposed by a ‘muppet’. I truly do not know who to vote for next time. None of the 3 main parties inspire me.

    These ‘leaks’ are simply a part of the usual cynical game of politics.

    What’s wrong with a democratic approach where the majority view holds sway. Clearly Parliamentary democracy is a busted flush.

  6. Meg Howarth says:

    Things aren’t opening up as much as you imply, Jon. Attempts are currently being made to role back the Freedom of Information Act – Number10, Blair & Blairites Gus McDonnell, the (Jack) Strawman all lining up with their various objections to FOI, principal amongst which is precisely that it makes it impossible for government to have behind-closed-doors talk. And tomorrow David Owen will be tabling a House of Lords amendment to force the government to publish the NHS risk-register as the inestimable Information Commissioner Christopher Graham and the (?) court have both ruled that it should. Lansley and Cameron are ignoring the rulings, even thinking of wasting our money to appeal against the decisions in the Appeal Court. So far from government becoming more open, all the signs are of an Establishment moving to close what little decision-making’s on display. Silly, of course, as social media will catch them out.

    Meantime, the budget leaks seem to me more likely the result of coalition government than of any increase in democratic accountability.

  7. Philip says:

    No. Testing the waters for Budget measures has been going on for years. It’s all part of the PR that our rulers like to use to confuse us with smoke & mirrors rather than being transparent. And U turns come about because we elect governments of the centre (ever since Mrs T) whose prime raison d’etre is to be re-elected & remain in power. So if the polls, focus groups, etc say change tack, the politicos change tack. The death of ideology means were just offered Tesco or Sainsbury’s latest “offers”, rather than genuine choice. The logos & wrappers may differ – but its all about who does the PR better (which is why Ed M is faring so abysmally).

  8. Colin Talbot says:

    The simple answer is ‘yes’, it is too early Jon – see my analysis of “the public government of public money” over on http://www.whitehallwatch.org.

    Prof Colin Talbot

  9. Eddie says:

    Yes, I’m afraid it is too early. Open government is a non sequitur

  10. Margaret brandreth-jones says:

    I think that we have all got to a stage where we just carry on and await the financial abuse which is to be doled out.

  11. Des McConaghy says:

    Well I had heard from Colin Talbot’s “Whitehall Watch” website about your theory Jon – namely that a few leaks and press releases could mean we are opening up the parliamentary budget process. What rubbish! The best two short sentences describing this process is in the Hansard Society’s 2006 publication “The Fiscal Maze” – namely: “To draw an analogy, the government decides the value of the cheque, to whom it should be paid and when, and Parliament simply signs it”…”The UK is considered to have among the weakest systems for parliamentary control and influence over government expenditure in the developed world”!

    And the “Catch 22” is that every new MPs soon discovers that they cannot challenge this absurd situation if they also hope for party political promotion within the Government or Opposition. So the farce is perpetuated. Every so often enough select committee chairmenget a bit restless and go through the motion of seeking improvements – and indeed the Treasury now purports to be working on a reform (the “Alignment Project”). But if you believe that you will believe anything!

  12. Marilyn D-M says:

    The British public have always loved the underdog and thrive in times of crisis and misery. Small wonder then that no one apart from the AA boss is shouting about the possible sell off of M & A roads. Haven’t they learnt from the sale of the railways that it’s not the answer? I worked for the Ministry of Highways and believe me it’s fabulously wealthy. It owns huge areas of land and buildings from compulsory puchase for road building. These nuggets are sold off at a large profit and very liesurely pace and the employee who makes the most money for the MoH is in line for all sorts of rewards. The office I worked in was ‘state of the art’ with bespoke office chairs made to measure (and I was only on a temp contract). There was no such thing as video conferencing as one always travelled first class to meetings. We even had a dedicated rest room in case we ‘came over all unnecessary’ in the course of work. And the canteen – did I mention the canteen? Well all I can say is Starbucks eat your heart out. Stop bashing the motorist and sort out your Ministry, Davey.

  13. soiniciulacht says:

    I would suggest there are many more benefits cuts to come:

    Cut housing benfits, move poor to other areas and then use this as the basis for following localised pay with localised benefits

    21st Century Welfare.

    ‘There are a number of options for moving to a less centralised welfare system.’ (page30, para 9)


  14. Blunkers says:

    Is Rachel Reeves incapable of good manners? I’ve lost count of the number of times she has interrupted Danny Alexander & Jon during this evening’s programme. She may have some good points to make, but her manners are sadly lacking – is it any wonder we have such little faith in our politicians?!!

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