Today’s front pages make horrible reading for George Osborne. Even the normally sympathetic right wing press are furious that yesterday’s budget contained an attack on that most untouchable of voters (and readers), the humble pensioner.
From a communications perspective, this has been a truly awful piece of media management by the Treasury. Yesterday’s statement was widely derided in advance for the amount of major announcements that had been leaked to the media. And when all of the major news stories from the budget have been pre-briefed, it is inevitable that the media is going to focus on any ‘new news’ in the budget, particularly when it is so politically contentious.
So, given that the worst piece of news in the budget is arguably the only one that wasn’t leaked in advance, it is astonishing that the Treasury seems so shocked by the flak it is receiving today. There are two lessons here – one about basic media management, the other about political history.
All good comms professionals know that when a bad piece of news about an organisation is very likely to emerge, you need to get out in front of the story. Release the information yourself in a manageable way, be the one setting the context, providing the justification and narrative, while appearing open and transparent to boot. And on budget day, the negative news always comes out. So George Osborne and his media advisers should definitely have seen it coming and prepared the ground far, far better than they did.
The political point is more controversial. Remember (long before the days of elections-that-weren’t and the 10p tax debacle) when Gordon Brown was feted as a political genius, slayer of Tories, the strategic mind behind New Labour’s greatest successes and most tactical victories? Then he took over at No 10, and his unique combination of crippling indecision and calamitous political judgement was exposed for all to see.
Well, it looks as if there’s more than a hint of Gordon about George. Again, the Chancellor is seen as his party’s master strategist, the beating political heart of the Cameron machine. (A machine, don’t forget, that failed to win an election against Gordon Brown, even after he had publicly attacked a loyal Labour voter and – yes – pensioner). The day to day tactics of the Chancellor are overcast by a particularly Brownian shadow: multiple relaunches of pointless Government schemes, too-clever-by-half budget trickery, and even the hyperactive Downing Street summitry that were so derided by the Conservatives in opposition.
George Osborne’s advisers made a big mistake yesterday. They will compound it if they forget that Gordon Brown’s downfall began with the backlash to his budget proposal to scrap the 10p tax rate. As one Labour insider said yesterday, “at least our budgets took a couple of days before they unravelled”.