Traditionally, the Budget is used by the governing party as an advertisement to the public. Through a series of economic policy announcements, linked by a central theme, the Chancellor intimates to the country what direction the Government is headed in, and outlines how the people will benefit from keeping this lot in power.
Like all advertisements, it is supposed to act on the subconscious mind: the governing party is aware that the people sitting at home aren’t glued to their TVs hanging on the Chancellor’s every word, but they hope that through some sort of osmosis – aided by the press and social media – the central message will get through.
Since the days of Gordon Brown, Chancellors have concluded that the best way to make sure that this happens – and the direction message doesn’t get buried in a heap of dry technicalities – is to leak a few big announcements to the media before the big day. These leaks are carefully curated: they must be interesting enough to start a public conversation, indicative of the general philosophy of the government, but not so enormous that they wreak prolonged havoc in the markets or start a fight with government backbenchers.
In the run up to the 2001 budget, Gordon Brown hit the nail on the head. A few weeks before the day itself, The Times ran a story saying that the 10p tax band was to be widened – a move which particularly benefited the low paid – while the basic rate of income tax would stay at 22p. Subsequently, details were fleshed out in other newspapers, and it was revealed that the 10p band would widen to take in the first £4,535 of a person’s income, compared with the current £4,385. As the Telegraph pointed out at the time, the story did two things for Mr Brown. It killed speculation that he might cut the basic rate of income tax, preventing disappointment on the day, and it ensured that whatever happened in the speech itself, the central message – that Labour was thinking of the lower paid – reached home.
This time, things haven’t quite worked like that. It’s now less than 24 hours before the budget speech and where we expected a big leak which would illuminate how the Government sees itself and its future, we got… a promise to extend the 18-25 railcard to include 25-30s.
As someone who uses trains a lot and is turning 25 next year, I’m not going to complain too much. But how could the Government not realise that a mini freebie for 26-30s doesn’t exactly scream vision, breadth? What big, bold, free market message is a free railcard extension supposed to give the public? With Corbyn promising to renationalise the railways, how did the Conservatives not see the powerful “tinkering around the edges” criticism from Labour coming?
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
If leaks are a good indicator of the scope of a budget – and recent history tells us that they are – then anyone hoping that Philip Hammond is about to defy all the odds and produce something big, bold and visionary to revive this weary cabinet and renew the Conservative Party is about to be sorely disappointed.