Chancellor freed from pre-Budget tradition

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Indy Politics
KENNETH CLARKE, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has never been the sort of minister who would be gagged easily, and yesterday the Cabinet appeared to bow to the inevitable by abolishing the traditional rule of pre-Budget purdah, writes Colin Brown.

One of his Cabinet colleagues said after the Chancellor had addressed yesterday's meeting: 'Ken brought a breath of fresh air to the Cabinet.

'Instead of reading from his brief, Ken banged his papers down, and talked to the Cabinet like one of the blokes talking to the lads in Annie's Bar. I'm sure he will be saying exactly the same in the bar as he said to us.'

Purdah was imposed to avoid Chancellors and their junior ministers from running the risk of giving away Budget secrets, with the possibility that millions could be made on market-sensitive leaks.

One Chancellor of the Exchequer (Hugh Dalton, a member of the Atlee Cabinet, in 1947) was forced to resign over leaking his Budget.

Part of the purdah tradition forced the Treasury team to forgo the usual round of ministerial lunches, and to refuse invitations from journalists. But after yesterday's ruling, the Chancellor and his team will be able to carry on lunching regardless.

Officials said yesterday that the Cabinet agreed to the change in view of the new unified Budget and spending statement in the autumn. But Mr Clarke made no secret of the fact that he regarded purdah as damaging for the Government.

He wants to be able to speak freely to counter criticism from the Opposition, and knock down some of the wilder ideas about spending cuts - such as the introduction of charges to go to the family doctor. Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had to say that 'nothing was ruled in and nothing was ruled out'. But Mr Clarke has already broken his purdah to make it clear that some spending cuts are just not on.