Budget 1999: Media Coverage - Papers in a spin as leaks dried up

COME BACK Charlie Whelan, all is forgiven. As the Chancellor rose to deliver his Budget speech yesterday, the poor British public could be excused for wondering whatever happened to the Treasury's legendary purdah.

As a glance at recent newspaper stories would reveal, one of the leakiest Budgets in years has been subject to the kind of media speculation that would make even Mr Brown's former spin doctor choke on his Red Lion pint.

From the much-rumoured 10p income tax rate to the abolition of the married couple's tax allowance, press coverage over the past week has claimed an exhaustive inside knowledge of the contents of Mr Brown's red box.

Yet no one, but no one, had the most important story of all: a cut in the basic rate of income tax from 23p to 22p. Or that the new 10p rate would come into force immediately.

In the absence of Mr Whelan's previous strategy of surgical strikes on specific media targets, eager journalists were left fumbling for a good steer on topics large and small.

The media have also speculated more wildly than usual and the result is a dizzying cocktail of stories that appeared to leave Mr Brown little room to announce anything remotely new. This year's Budget has not been leaked wholesale, as Kenneth Clarke's was to The Mirror under the last government, but the ordinary newspaper reader could be forgiven for thinking it had.

The key "will-he-or-won't-he?" issues centred on abolition of the married couple's tax allowance, taxing child benefit and the introduction of a 10p basic rate of income tax.

Not surprisingly, amid the confusion, different newspapers have claimed with equal vigour stories that flatly contradict their rivals. Last weekend, The Daily Telegraph combined two key issues when it asserted that the abolition of the pounds 1.75 billion-a-year married couple's allowance (MCA) would fund the 10p starting rate. But The Independent on Sunday suggested that Tony Blair had vetoed the abolition of the MCA because it would undermine family values.

On child benefit, The Financial Times claimed that the Treasury had come up with a way of taxing it, while The Sunday Telegraph said that Mr Brown had backed off from the idea in this Budget.

The Times and Daily Telegraph were particularly off- beam, with the former claiming just last week that the Chancellor would be blown off course by a pounds 2-billion hole in revenues from smuggled cigarettes and alcohol.

Depending on which paper you read, mortgage interest tax relief may/may not be saved/scrapped, while stamp duty may be frozen or raised.

But readers of The Independent will be pleased to note that this newspaper's record was better than most. On the issue of child benefit, we reported that the taxation idea had been ditched. Similarly, we correctly warned yesterday that an energy tax on business would definitely be in the Budget.

Officially, the Treasury states that there has always been a tradition of speculative stories "many of which prove to be wildly inaccurate", a spokesman said.

One senior government source said last night that the press coverage was more haphazard than previous years, claiming that this was simply due to journalistic laziness.