Today, budgets and budget leaks are very different. All the important government decisions about the next financial year have already been taken. We know that tax on cigarettes and petrol will go up, child benefit will be increased, and the burden of National Insurance contributions will be shifted up the income scale, because they were announced last year. Gordon Brown's purpose when he rises to speak tomorrow, apart from fine- tuning policy over the next three years, is largely presentational.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. The Chancellor can reasonably argue that he and his colleagues are engaged in a major overhaul of the tax system, and have begun a series of significant changes in the management of public finances, but that it requires a big occasion like the Budget to focus people's attention on the wider picture.
Equally, the practice of using the budget to announce changes one or two years in advance, or permanent "escalators" such as the annual increase in petrol duty, has developed since Dalton's day. And that is a good thing, since it allows government and businesses to plan ahead further than 12 months.
Where the Government has a problem is that budget leaks are also largely presentational too, in that they are more to do with the airworthiness of kites and the adjusting of expectations than they are to do with the contents of the Budget itself. Moreover, one reason why the big picture is so cloudy is because the Government has tried to take credit for things before they happen. The pounds 40bn extra for health and education, for example, does not begin to be spent until next month - and then it is spread over three years. In real life, we are still in the two-year alleged squeeze imposed by sticking to "Tory spending limits".
Sadly, the Conservative party continues to fail the public, as the official Opposition is still the last place the honest voter would turn to for the truth about how his or her taxes are spent. The fuss William Hague's student politicians made last week about the Prime Minister's admission that "the tax burden will increase over this Parliament" was extraordinary, given that Tony Blair's sentence continued "at or below the level predicted by the Conservatives in their last budget".
It is left to Malcolm Bruce of the Liberal Democrats to provide the only serious critique of Mr Brown's stewardship. Mr Bruce is right to point out that Labour is too driven by presentational needs. The idea of a 10p-in-the-pound starting rate of income tax is a good example: it steals the Tory language of tax cuts in a way which helps the less well-off, but a more efficient way to achieve the same end is simply to raise the threshold at which people start to pay tax.
If Mr Brown can avoid such gimmickry, then tomorrow could be a turning- point, as the Government moves out of what the Prime Minister described as the "post-euphoria, pre-delivery phase" into the period of "making a difference". Next month sees not only another big rise in child benefit, and the start of extra spending on schools and the NHS, but also the start of the national minimum wage.
Meanwhile, the way the Government plans and controls public spending is being transformed by a system of performance targets and "contracts" between departments and the Treasury, hardly noticed outside Whitehall.
The Budget may have become a right media circus, but it can still serve a valuable purpose, provided that we look for the slow and deep in Mr Brown's speech and do not get distracted by the flashy surface.Reuse content