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Former Treasury Minister Says Pre-Briefings Suggest There Is “Very Difficult News” Hidden In The Budget

Rishi Sunak has announced a raft of policies ahead of tomorrow's Budget (Alamy)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak has been accused of trying to “camouflage” bad news in tomorrow’s Budget after a raft of policy announcements ahead of his speech.

Two former Treasury ministers said the briefings cannot be properly assessed as they have been stripped of context by being sent out as press releases before Wednesday’s fiscal event.

The Chancellor has been criticised by the Speaker of the Commons Lindsay Hoyle for unveiling new policy to the media first and not in Parliament, suggesting it has been a resigning issue previously.

He has granted urgent questions yesterday and today to try and drag the government into the chamber to explain the decisions, following the announcement overnight the public sector pay freeze will be lifted, and the minimum wage hiked to £9.50 an hour.

That followed Sunak announcing more than £23 billion of spending pledges over the weekend, including an extra £5.9billion for the NHS to cut the backlog.

Former chief secretary to the Treasury, Labour’s Liam Byrne, said the “sheer volumes of advance leaks” suggests there is bad news in the Budget the Treasury are trying to camouflage.

He told PoliticsHome: “Generally speaking there are a couple or rules on Budget briefing; the number of leaks in advance generally has an inverse relationship to good news in the Budget.

“So, the more leaks in advance the worse the news is in the budget that needs the camouflage.

“Second, the happiness of the day itself generally can't be judged until day two when the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has spoken. That's when things really tend to fall apart.”

David Gauke, another former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said people should “be... very cautious about announcements of pots of money when you can't see the full context.”

He told PoliticsHome: “So trying to work out whether this is an increase in real terms, or in cash terms, whether it's over a number of years, or whether it's annual.

“Hardest of all is whether it's new money, as in some some cases this might be replacing other pots of money, and in others this might be coming out of pre-announced capital budgets.

“So how newsworthy some of these announcements are, how significant they really are, is really hard to assess.”Huw Pill, chief economist of the Bank of England, said that because the allocations are set in cash terms, and inflation is expected to rise to 5% next year, the announcements do not take into account that the money will be worth less in the future.

This is why "trying to make a judgement as to the overall fiscal approach, or the real priorities of the government is very hard to do,” Gauke said.

Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, has described the announcements ahead of the Budget as “pretty much meaningless, or at least impossible to pin down”.Byrne said the number of pre-briefed policies "is way beyond anything in living memory”, adding: "Rishi has already pulled some unusual stunts with the numbers by asking the OBR to use numbers we all know are already out of date.

“Given the Treasury ultimately lives and dies by the integrity of their data, this is skating on thin ice to put it mildly.

“However, this is a very centralised, very politicised administration so it looks like Number 11 has conceded presentational control to Number 10 in return for the latitude to take some tough decisions.”

It has been suggested the number of pre-briefed polices will leave Sunak with little new to announce when he reaches the despatch box tomorrow lunchtime, but Gauke said he will leave a few rabbits to be pulled out of the hat, potentially on dealing with the the cost of living crisis.

“I would be very surprised if he hasn't got something quite significant to announce,” he said.

"My guess, and it is only a guess, is that he'll release the Universal Credit taper rate, but we’ll see on that.”

On the ongoing row with Hoyle over announcing policies outside the Commons first, the former Cabinet minster said: “Other governments, including a government I was part of, found ourselves caught up in similar circumstances. I would worry more if it was market sensitive information, which I don't think is where we are.

"I can completely understand where the Speaker is coming from, but I suspect the government think that that's a price worth paying.”

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