Whatever happened to Budget Purdah?
Today's array of headlines are shameful: not those concerning the war, but those disclosing George Osborne's intentions as he deliver's Budget 2011. Many are not at all speculative, but apparently quite authoritatively informed. By whom?
There was a time when Budget was shrouded ('purdah' is Persian for 'curtain') and none in government would discuss in advance any matters which related to it. There is virtually no point the Chancellor delivering his speech today: we already know there will be an increase in the personal income tax allowance; that the rise in fuel duty will be cancelled; that first-time buyers are to be helped on to the housing ladder with a £250,000 fund; and that some announcement will be made on tax reform to merge National Insurance and Income Tax.
The media are frequently using the future tense or the periphrastic form for the immediate future; it is 'will', 'is going to' and 'is about to'. The unknown conditionals have disappeared. There is no 'may' or 'is expected to' or 'is hoped'. There is is no 'could', 'should' or 'might'. We have instead pages of authoritative comment on what the Chancellor will say: we have the facts. Has the budget been systematically and purposely leaked, or are we dealing with increasingly prophetic journalists? We already know from the Prime Minister (no less) that motorists are to be helped. But when the Chancellor himself (and his acolyte Matthew Hancock MP) are touring the television studios just a week before the Budget, we can take their fiscal 'hopes' and 'aspirations' as formal policy announcements.
Leaks are nothing new, of course. But Speaker Bercow was elected to his present position with a zero-tolerance pledge: ministers are obliged to inform Parliament before spinning to the media. There will probably be no rebuke, and His Grace is content to use that adverb, for, unlike the mainstream media, he is neither 'reliably informed' nor prophetic.