March 11, 2020
Inside the Treasury: an insider’s account into the UK Budget Day
Today is the biggest day of the year inside the UK Treasury, where ministers and officials are gathering nervously to talk through their final plan of action over some appallingly unhealthy breakfast choices. So what’s it like to be on the inside? Jason Stein, a Director at Finsbury and a former Treasury spokesperson provided an insider’s account into Budget day to Politico’s London Playbook, drawing on his extensive experience working on previous budgets.
Rule 1 — Don’t celebrate too soon: For overworked Treasury officials, spinners and ministers, this budget is the culmination of months of work under two different chancellors. But a wise Treasury official once explained that budgets are like living with a flu-sufferer — you only really know you’re in the clear about two weeks later. Of course this particular chancellor may not know if he’s judged his response to the latest flu outbreak correctly for many months to come. But budgets are not for the faint-hearted. Anyone who values socializing, sleeping or stable diets should probably never work on one.
Final furlong: The budget process lasts months, but it’s the final 48 hours that get the heart racing. It typically begins with a marathon eve-of-budget run-through of all the policy decisions. Led by the chancellor’s press secretary, it involves assembled Downing Street aides, press officers, officials and special advisers testing all the questions likely to be asked by hacks at the post-budget lobby briefing. Most staff at this tense summit munch away on a much-needed delivery of burgers. In 2018, one unnamed food delivery company failed to deliver anything … No tax cut for them. It was at that hungry briefing that the unpredictable nature of a budget was best demonstrated. The esteemed political editor of the Times, Francis Elliott, had earlier speculated that a minister may resign over the budget. “Nonsense,” one adviser confidently said. The sports minister, Tracey Crouch, would resign a few days later.
Morning glory: Budget day itself begins with breakfast for staff — £3-worth of sausage, beans and hash browns. It’s tempting to wonder if new Chancellor Rishi Sunak has found cash for an inflation-busting breakfast rise. Being part of Budget day is a huge privilege, but for most of the morning it’s eerily quiet. You’ll arrive at your desk to find the budget, an economic and fiscal outlook from the OBR, and “The Bible” — an enormous ring-binder which in theory has the answer to any question you could ever be asked.
Standard behavior: One of the first press jobs of the day is to sort out a story for the Evening Standard and its doyen of budget reporting, Joe Murphy. In 2018 this job was handed to me. (Everyone else must have been busy.) A £160 million fund of counter terror policing was the big Standard “drop” for the day. Job done, we waited for the first edition. Sadly the editor — a man who knows a thing or two about budgets — rather mischievously splashed on the news that Angela Merkel was to stand down instead. “Chancellor resigns on Budget Day …” the front page yelled.
Check against delivery: The chancellor’s speech will work its way around inboxes during the morning, with one press officer ordered to strip it of any political content that cannot be hosted on the official government website. Sometimes this decision is so contentious that it goes to the Treasury equivalent of VAR … the permanent secretary.
Say cheese: Around 11:45 a.m. the Treasury events team springs into action for the important Downing Street red box photo. The Treasury’s head of events is a cool and calm operator, and gives ministers their marching orders in deadly fashion. Smiles are practiced — “you need to look happy, minister … but not too happy” — and one by one they are trooped out of No.11 in order of seniority to grin for the cameras.
Go forth and multiply: The events team will miss the budget itself, heading off to wherever the chancellor will visit the next morning. For weeks these poor people have been living in a nomadic state, traveling the country searching for the perfect visit to encapsulate the budget theme. So when you look at those images tomorrow morning, please remember that a few very talented officials have put four weeks of their life into that — and clocked up more miles than Alan Whicker.
Pub? Once the budget is delivered, seemingly every official in the building descends upon the Two Chairmen pub. One unlucky member of each policy team must remain on hand to assist with press queries.
Truss me: As Liz Truss’ aide (while she was Treasury No. 2) I would wait outside the chamber for her so we could begin one of the toughest media rounds of the year, selling the budget to the public. It takes hours, and typically only ends with Newsnight. While this is going on, the chancellor will be phoning around the editors of all the national newspapers. In 2018 I also had to contend with “lap dance gate,” as Liz was mocked after being momentarily forced to sit on the lap of then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid. He had refused to move up to accommodate her on the packed front bench. It fell to Theresa May to order Javid down the bench … She wouldn’t be the last PM to dismiss him.
Aye, corona: For the new prime minister and chancellor, this budget is going to be somewhat overshadowed by coronavirus. The usual clearing of the decks of other government business has understandably not been possible. Nonetheless, good luck to my old colleagues today. And whatever you do — if this is your first budget, do try and enjoy your little bit of history.
This piece initially appeared on Politico