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Tuesday, March 9, 1999 Published at 14:29 GMT

How Budget secrets are spun

Budget secrecy a myth

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

When Gordon Brown unveils his second Budget there is one thing you can be sure of - you will already know most of what is in it and more besides.

It is supposed to be one of the capital sins in government to leak details of the annual announcement, and Treasury ministers and officials go into purdah for months beforehand.

Hugh Dalton was forced to resign after leaking details of his 1947 Budget to a journalist as he walked into the chamber to unveil it.

But the alleged secrecy surrounding the Budget is a myth. For weeks beforehand there will have been speculation in the media about what will or will not be in the package.

Much of it is simply informed guesswork based on experience and a "feel" for what the government of the day is about.

But the rest will have come from the spin doctors - all of whom are following their masters' personal agendas.

King of spin

Before his downfall in the wake of the "cash-for-homes" scandal, the chancellor's former aide Charlie Whelan was one of the kings of spin.

It has been speculated that, without him, there will be less of it this year. But that is to ignore the overwhelming desire of the government to control events.

[ image: Charlie Whelan: Former king of spin]
Charlie Whelan: Former king of spin
The chancellor's economics adviser Ed Balls is a lower profile character than Mr Whelan was, but he still has a reputation for being able to handle a spin operation when the need arises.

And, of course, there will be other ministers' spin doctors trying to push their own agendas by leaking stories to the press.

There are any number of ways of trying to spin the Budget and you can guarantee they will all be used at one time or another between now and the announcement.

Mr Whelan once boasted on TV of the way he handled the pre-election announcement that a Labour government would not raise taxes and would stick to the Tories' spending totals for two years.

His master was appearing on the BBC's Today programme and the press had an idea something big was on the cards.

Job done

But Mr Brown was determined to wrong-foot the morning papers and dominate the whole of the day's headlines.

So Mr Whelan spent the best part of the previous day denying there was going to be anything significant in the interview. When it came it was a bombshell and dominated the news agenda - job done.

Mr Whelan admitted he had been "economical with the truth".

When it comes to the Budget the spin operations go into overdrive and fall into a number of categories.

Unpalatable bits of the announcement are widely put about well before the day to ensure their negative impact is dramatically lessened when they are actually unveiled.

It is possible that reports that the chancellor will this year end the married couple's tax allowance fall into this category.

There are also reports circulated that the government is going to fulfil one of its big, difficult pledges. These often come from other ministers or mischief makers trying to bounce or embarrass the government.

Sigh of relief

Speculation that the chancellor will this year introduce the long-awaited 10p lower tax band may fall into this category.

Alternatively those leaks may came under the "lets run it up the flag pole and see how many people salute it" category.

Then, of course, there are the stories planted in a bid to divert attention away from what is really going on. You leak that something awful is planned for the package and when it isn't there everyone heaves a sigh of relief.

And, usually, the chancellor likes to keep one surprise up his sleeve which - because everything else has already been chewed over for weeks in advance - is bound to grab the headlines simply because it is new.

Mr Whelan recently admitted of the last Budget: "Of course you can never leak Budgets, but you can raise and lower expectations. I was certainly not trying to discourage you lot from writing we would hit the middle classes so that when we didn't it looked like a triumph."

Lastly, there are the stories leaked in a bid to expose or undermine a colleague.

Mr Whelan was a master at this technique as well.

He once fed bogus information about mortgage interest relief to former Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson's camp because he was fed up with the leaks he believed were coming from that source.

He was delighted when the story appeared in a national newspaper - exposing and embarrassing the Mandelson camp at a one time.

But just because Mr Whelan has gone it would be wrong to assume the spinning has stopped, so every Budget story between now and the announcement should carry a health warning.

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