Sometimes, the ‘neighs’ have it

If you’ve just had the pleasure of watching UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond rattle off his dozens of policy announcements – alongside a couple of brave, if ultimately futile, attempted jokes – then you might be wondering, like me, how some of the ideas got there, and why your pet proposal didn’t. If so, it’s worth picking up a copy of Damian McBride’s entertaining New Labour-era diss-and-tell memoir, Power Trip

McBride rose through the ranks of Gordon Brown’s entourage to become the Chancellor’s communications chief. But his reputation as an attack dog has belied a fine policy brain, honed at the Treasury – where, for a while, he was responsible for the epic coordination effort involved in pulling together the Budget.

This procedure may have changed since McBride’s days in Whitehall, but I doubt it. The civil service, and the Treasury especially, are naturally resistant to change for change’s sake. In any case, Brown’s statements revolved around a spreadsheet, and we all know the regard with which ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ holds Microsoft excel.

The Budget process in McBride’s day, such as it was, involved assembling said multi-page spreadsheet, containing all of the policy proposals which had reached Brown’s inner circle, from big-ticket tax changes to the many potentially worthy bits and pieces costing no more than single-figure millions which, to a public affairs consultant, are the most interesting of them all. The first page of the ‘scorecard’ was for the favorites – those almost certain to make the Budget Book. The second was for contenders, the third for long odds, the fourth for rank outsiders and the fifth for the three-legged donkeys.

However unlikely it seemed that a given policy would make the Budget, each was considered ‘a starter’. As McBride explains: “The reason that no starter ever went to the glue factory, but was kept on sheet five even with both legs broken, was that you never knew if you might need one measure at the last minute to raise a certain amount of money or target support at some particular segment of society, if the final Budget arithmetic or the distributional analysis required it.”

To those in the business of pushing good causes in Westminster and Whitehall, this is worth noting. Take, for example, Hammond’s commitment today to channel £28 million into a new taskforce designed to eradicate rough sleeping. As a proportion of public spending it’s almost inconsequential, and yet it has found a slot not only in the great official tome detailing the Budget’s commitments, but also in the Chancellor’s speech itself. 

There are several possible reasons for the appearance of this particular measure. Hammond may have judged it politically wise, given the recent return to the ballot box of young voters, who are generally concerned about the plight of the homeless. It may have been the result of particularly intensive lobbying by local government. Or perhaps it simply helped to make the sums add up, overtaking the thoroughbreds which proved too expensive or politically difficult. The point is that it was there and it was judged useful to include, without having featured in any significant way in the Tories’ general messaging since the election.

There’s a lesson here for lobbyists. Received wisdom is that unless you’re representing a massive trade association or a giant corporate, and unless you’ve got a hotline to the Chancellor and his coterie, there’s not much point in pushing for the inclusion of a relatively small spending commitment in the budget. Inevitably, it’s said, the idea gets lost amongst all the other perfectly sensible ideas which get mixed up at the back of the pack with the donkeys. Better to take up the cause with another Department, or in Parliament, and hope that it might eventually find its way to a Minister who finds it agreeable.

But plenty of government relations types from small trade associations, charities, advocacy groups and business will have been pleasantly surprised by one measure or another which made it to the finish line today. Campaigners who have been chipping away at Under-Secretaries of State and mid-ranking civil servants, or bending the ear of Select Committee chairs, will have found that somebody, somewhere, was listening after all. 

It was that sort of Budget, in the end. In light of the worrying downgrade in economic forecasts, Hammond had very little room for manoeuvre. He may occupy Number 11 Downing Street, but today it felt like he lacked the space to swing Gladstone, the Treasury’s famous cat. It seems that promoting a cluster of small and medium-sized projects to the front of the pack was the best he could do, whatever the hopes of his colleagues. 

The moral of the story, then, is that if you can get your horse to the starting line, you never know what might happen – even if, in the end, the neighs have it.

thomas newham
Thomas Newham

Tom Newham is based in APCO Worldwide’s London office and works across public affairs and corporate communications, having previously worked in PR and government relations roles in the alcoholic beverages industry. Read More