Wednesday, 23 March 2011

An Opposition view of Budget day

Few days in British politics - if indeed any - directly impact so significantly on every single individual who lives in the UK like Budget day. I was fortunate enough to have been a small part of the team striving to rebut 6 of Gordon Brown's Budget statements, working with MPs, journalists, academics, accountants and lawyers to unravel the spin and dissect the small print. Here is a summary of what it was like.

Of course, as with George Osborne this weekend, Brown as Chancellor would appear on the Andrew Marr show to set out his stall. This was then followed by carefully selected briefing by Treasury SpAds (Ed Balls/Damian McBride) as to what might be in the Budget statement. Although, it is important to note that Mr Speaker doesn't look kindly on this activity by Budget day you had a pretty good idea of a lot of the more tactical measures from the Government.

Further broadcasting, speculation aside, was left until after the Chancellor had sat down - with Lib Dems most likely to win the race to College Green to offer their tuppence worth by ignoring Parliamentary protocol - this is where the battle really begins. Brown himself would do the bare minimum of broadcasting beyond the flagship programmes. Instead Labour would deploy their best media performers pitched to talk to Middle England. Here they would argue the toss against Conservative and Lib Dem spokesmen or whisper in the ear of Lobby hacks.

A team of Conservative policy wonks and researchers would be in place in the Shadow Cabinet room (situated behind the Speaker's Chair entrance to the Commons chamber) about an hour before the Chancellor delivered the Budget. Waiting in grim anticipation for the onslaught. This wood-panelled dusty horror of a room would soon be over-crowded with people, platters of sandwiches and used coffee cups. The glamour of opposition politics will never leave me.

What is little known is that, although Brown shared his statement with the Opposition, key facts, figures or policy decisions would be blanked out as if a letter from a British soldier writing home from the Western Front. This made responding an art form few could master. Over time, with experience, responses improved and we knew to concentrate on a few key points to feed into the Commons chamber ready for the response by the Leader of the Opposition. From Brown there was always a 'rabbit out of the hat', right at the end of his statement. Designed to play to the gallery, make the headlines and wrong-foot those responding it was naked politics which Brown revelled in.

This made the immediate two to three hours - on broadcast but also in briefing the wider media - crucial to winning the Budget day battle. It is difficult to explain just how intense an experience it was to push our message, rebut that of the Government's while responding to specific requests for quotes from individual newspapers. We were trying to move the opinion of the entire news media with a staff of maybe three or four. People talk about spin but it was more like being buffeted in a wind.

A rogue growth figure or tax projection could sometimes be enough to cause a flutter of anxiety in the Treasury camp. Maybe if we were lucky we'd land a punch or set the Lobby pack running on our theme rather than Brown's. Realistically, all too often, the small print was too small and the fine detail spread oh-too-sparsely amongst the Treasury documents weighing up to two stone which accompanied the Chancellor's statement.

One speech but thousands of pages delivered as Brown stood up designed to confuse rather than explain the policy decisions and their affect on the lives of the UK's 28 million households. This was deliberate and ensured the Lobby journalists would diligently trail into a room, just off the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, to get a briefing from the Treasury spokesman there to explain what Gordon Brown had just said really meant.

As few political journalists understand even the most basic of economics it was like spoon feeding a baby. A few - Peter Riddell and Rosie Bennett (Times), Ben Brogan (Mail/Telegraph), George Jones (Telegraph/PA) - would raise points of concern or dissent they or we had noticed in the small print. Too often the clamour for copy from the news editor ran rough shod over individual attempts to discover the truth behind Brown's tractor-production-esque delivery of his spending, growth and inflation figures. Other papers just wanted to do the "tabloid view": fags, booze, income tax and top line spending increases.

It would take some great minds, and many hours, from CCHQ staff or those on secondment from KPMG to find the "Budget Unravelling" line. Sometimes it wouldn't come at all, others it was found just in time for the evening news bulletins if not the first editions. The good news: once a budget did unravel it unwound fast.

This meant the shadow chancellor's appearance on Newsnight and the next morning's media round was a joy. Crossing paths with an angry Gordon Brown in the Today studio or the GMTV green room was one of my highlights of working at Conservative HQ. Brown's control freakery extended to all elements of Budget day so to find an angle or a chink in his armour he had missed must have really riled him. Over time, as his hubris deepened, this became easier to do.

Then onto a mid-morning review of what the Budget meant from the Institute for Fiscal Studies where perhaps Brown's figures would unravel some more but often by then - with the next days headlines already secured - his coterie of spokesmen and women could point to these as the view of who really matters: the 'hard working families'.

Budget day was relentless, hard work, infuriating and often unrewarding. When we did hurt Brown politically it was fantastic. Later today Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, both well versed in what goes into producing a Budget, will join forces to shape the response to George Osborne's Statement.

Their job is far easier than ours ever was, as the introduction of the Office of Budget Responsibility has ushered in a new era of transparency in economic forecasting. The current Chancellor is also dealing with a terrible set of economic data whereas Brown inherited a golden legacy from Ken Clarke. This means a different battleground to the ones I was used to operating in, but I have little doubt it will be just as intense.   

1 comment:

  1. What has been left out here is that, when the Conservative Party was in government, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and his team had full access to the figures and changes being proposed at least ninety minutes before the Budget was delivered. I was present in the early-1990s when John Smith and his advisers arrived to see the Budget documents. Gordon Brown broke all the conventions by denying his opposite number access to the details of his proposals.


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