UK Budget: hard numbers and political theatre
After weeks of meticulous planning, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has offered a Budget to cheer people up. But amid bad economic news, will it really work?
For weeks now the minister and his team have huddled together in secret. They've reworked the speech again and again, carefully considering their announcements - for on this day, every fact and figure has a message attached.
And then the day came. Yesterday, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, stood up just after 12.30pm in a hushed House of Commons and delivered his second budget. It's pure theatre – but the script touches all our lives.
It's all recorded in the so-called 'Red Book' - published on Budget Day and full of policy, economic predictions and statistics.
But more important than the fine print is the overall choreography of the budget dance. So will the mood music hit the right note? And will the audience applaud?
Last year, Mr Osborne announced a programme of radical spending cuts and a tax on sales (VAT). This week he wants to offer some glimmers of hope to an electorate already braced for harsh economic days ahead.
'Today's budget is about reforming the nation's economy so that we have enduring growth and jobs in the future,' said Mr Osborne. And he both surprised and cheered business with a 2p cut in corporation tax.
But with the Chancellor forced to downgrade his growth forecasts for the year, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, stepped in: 'Every time he comes into the House, growth is downgraded!'
Beneath blue skies, the Chancellor offered small pieces of help including 40,000 new apprenticeships, 100,000 new work experience placements – and, to cheer up motorists, cancelled next month's 4p rise in fuel duty.
But in the bear-pit atmosphere of parliament, Ed Miliband remained unimpressed by the script. 'One fact says it all: growth down last year, this year and next year,' he proclaimed to Labour cheers.
Rise or fall?
The UK government has two set-piece occasions in the year to set the political tone. One is the autumn Queen's Speech, in which the monarch opens the parliamentary year.
The other is Budget Day in March, with the Chancellor holding up the red box outside Number 11 Downing St, saturation TV coverage and weighty special editions in next day's papers.
A budget can give the country and its government a psychological lift or it can lead to a sense of depression and falling poll ratings.
Yesterday George Osborne offered 'a budget for growth.' But only the next few months will show whether economic reality falls obediently into line with his carefully choreographed message.
- Do you think the budget affects you? Why / Why not?
- A lot of the budget is about changing various tax rates. Why do we pay tax? And how important are tax rates in changing the way countries work?
- Drawing up budgets is hard work. Try making one for a class expedition to somewhere fun. Remember you can only spend as much money as you can raise in 'taxes'.
- Budgets can send a message about a government's priorities. What do you think the government's priorities were here? Write a short report on the subject.
Some People Say...
“I don't see why we should pay any tax at all.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- A politician makes another speech. Wake me up when it's over!
- It's not as bad as it was. George Osborne, like recent predecessors, kept the budget to an hour. William Gladstone took four hours and 45 minutes in 1853, but he did have a glass of sherry and beaten egg to sustain him.
- Drinking on the job?
- It's the only day on which a politician is allowed to drink alcohol in the Commons chamber. Osborne and Gordon Brown before him stick to water, but when Kenneth Clarke was Chancellor, he kept a glass of whisky to hand.
- Any more odd traditions?
- Sadly, George Osborne didn't use Gladstone's battered, 150-year-old bombproof red box.
- Why not?
- It's now in a museum. Only two other Chancellors failed to carry their speech in the famous box. In one of those cases it was because he'd accidentally left the speech at home.