ne of the oddities of British political tradition is that it is the leader of the opposition, rather than the shadow chancellor, who responds to the Budget statement (and the deputy speaker rather than the speaker presides over proceedings). Often, this has wrongfooted the leader of the opposition for a number of reasons. First, the opposition leader may not be as thoroughly grounded in the contemporary political debate over the economy as the shadow chancellor, who lives and breathes it. Second, the chancellor may do something quite unexpected, and complicated, that renders the opposition leader’s pre-prepared speech instantly out of date and useless, and leaves them utterly exposed.
For example, a chancellor introducing a dramatic new lower tax rate of, say, 10p or 20p in the pound (as Gordon Brown and Norman Lamont did, respectively, in 1999 and 1992) left William Hague and Neil Kinnock, in their turn, having to bluster through it, unable to tell, at a glance, whether it necessarily made taxpayers better off. Third, the response is more or less immediate, with little time for improvisation. With social distancing in the Commons chamber, it wasn’t even easy for the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, to whisper an answer or two in Keir Starmer’s ear.
This year was rather different all round. The most striking departure from the past, apart from the scale of the numbers for borrowing and spending, is that the Budget was trailed so extensively. The whole convention of Budget secrecy has been silently abandoned with hardly anyone seeming to notice. In the past, Budget “leaks” have warranted the resignation of ministers, but no longer. So far from the “purdah” under which the chancellor and his colleagues used to remain silent for weeks before Budget day, they now do the media round and drop as many heavy hints as they wish. The rest is provided to the media, with suitable spin.