By Paul Goodman
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The BBC's website reminds us that "the Chancellor's budget secrets are meant to be totally secret before his speech" – and that following the 1947 budget Hugh Dalton resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer after it was discovered that he had leaked part of it. Which prompts the thought that Gordon Brown was lucky not be around in the late 1940s: walloping portions of his budgets were regularly trailed. So – let's be frank – is George Osborne. So much of his last autumn statement found its way into the press that John Bercow decided to extend its presentation to Parliament to three hours – "not least so I can hear whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has anything to say in the Chamber about these matters that he hasn't already said in the media".
There is little point in complaining about this change of Treasury culture – if one feels so minded – although it is worth noting that the custom is relatively new: as recently as 1996, the Daily Mirror felt honour-bound to hand back Ken Clarke's entire budget to the Government when it received a copy. It is a fact universally acknowledged that modern Chancellors will now leak their budgets, saving up a surprise or two for the speech budget itself, in order to test ideas and control coverage. But what is striking and perhaps unique about the coming one is that while ideas are being tested control is in danger of being lost. The effervescent Grant Schapps yesterday labelled a mansion tax – and perhaps by extention new council tax bands for pricier properties – a "granny tax", reflecting the hostility to both of Eric Pickles and his department.
This morning's Times (£) reports Conservative MPs warning the Chancellor against launching a tax raid on pension contributions, while Nick Clegg, Ken Clarke and Vince Cable have all pitched in this week over property taxes and child benefit. And there is still a fortnight minus a day before the Chancellor gets to his feet in the Commons to present his budget. His likes to frame each year by giving his two big Commons financial statements and making few big interventions in between, in order to preserve and project authority: no wonder Tim has compared him to a submarine, lurking in the depths of Westminster for most of the year. Osborne will be aware that this predomination is in danger of being compromised if it is concluded that his budget has been shaped not within the Treasury but without it – by his colleagues and the media.
There are two main reasons for the pressure on the Chancellor. The first is the scale of the deficit, which leaves him little room for manoevre and brings a sharpness to the debate about which taxes to raise. (This site is striving to refocus it on what spending should be cut, publishing Matthew Sinclair's ideas this morning.) The second is the nature of the Coalition itself. Since the defeat of AV in last year's referendum, Nick Clegg has made the strategic decision to lobby the Government about what he wants despite the fact that he himself is a part of it. This risks making policy-making less a programme than an auction, and is slowly but surely weakening at the durability of the Coalition, like a man working away with a tool at the hinges of a door. Control is the Chancellor's watchword. How is he going to keep his grip on it during the next fortnight?