Budgets are about a message, not the maths

Prime minister David Cameron – First Lord of the Treasury – may be the government’s PR man by background, but the Budget, the most high stakes public relations event in the politics calendar, is entrusted to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Whatever you think of George Osborne’s politics, as an act of communication he did rather well.

Of course, as we have seen many times, as a PR exercise can very easily go the other way too but, nevertheless, successive Chancellors repeatedly try to use their Budget announcements to give themselves a lead in the polls – sometimes shamelessly.

And when it comes to a pre-election budget, perhaps unsurprisingly, this small window of opportunity becomes even more important to exploit.

The Budget is less about the maths than we might think, and more about the message it sends. The maths will, after all, likely be billions out.

A poll that was carried out by Opinium/Observer last week indicated a ‘Budget Bounce’ in positive feeling towards the Conservatives since the 2015 Budget announcement last week. Compared to the week before, the party jumped three percentage points in positive opinion to 36%, while Labour dropped by two points to 33%.

While a mere three points might seem like a small victory from such a large statement, those two figures show just how important those three percentage points could be, as they pushed the Conservatives ahead of Labour with an election just a month or so away.

Many people like to dismiss the inbuilt connection between politics and PR but, if we’re being realistic, everything a politician does has a PR consequence – and often steps are taken with that in mind.

One very current example comes from Afzal Amin, the Conservative candidate for Dudley North who is accused of trying to artificially whip up his own positive PR by asking the English Defence League to pretend to plan a march through his constituency that he could then pretend to stop and take all the credit for. It’s all very House of Cards – or perhaps even ‘Wag the Dog’.

But we all know that it’s opinions that win elections and elections are the one thing that politicians can’t take out of the hands of the great unwashed, which makes PR considerations so important at all times, especially with such an active media presence in this country.

But back to the Budget 2015 and George Osborne’s successful PR-ing of his parties, often-derided, financial decisions.

The PR spin was “those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden.”

The reality was public spending cuts which were adjusted from the autumn statement just in time to avoid public services spending at its lowest levels since 1939.

It was a ‘help-to-buy ISA’ which offers first time buyers the opportunity to receive £3k from the government if they save £12k but which does nothing to address the undersupply of housing or the acute unaffordability of property in this country (which will neutralise that £3k straight away).

It was tax cuts for savers but no life rafts for those who have lost benefit support thanks to the Coalition and can barely earn enough to keep the wolf from the door.

But there was an increase in the tax-free allowance, a freeze in petrol duty and early access to cash in pensions – as well as the essential pre-election cut in beer duty, of course.

He was telling the nation who, as a type, he approved of.

If Budgets were about substance, Osborne would have admitted when, under pressure from international institutions, he eased austerity in 2012. He didn’t.

While many have said that a government really looking to protect those who don’t have the broadest shoulders would be focusing on building houses, tax breaks for companies paying the living wage and a decent minimum wage, that Opinium/Observer poll would indicate that – in spite of the bare facts – the chancellor’s hype was believed.

Which, in PR terms (for a politician), is a triumph. His opponents ignore the lessons of that at their peril.

This blog first appeared on Huffington Post

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