Budget Sketch: The spaniel, the donuts and Jabba the Hutt

Link: Budget 2003

Why else would it be that he went eyeballs out in this week’s Budget speech to break all records for brevity? In under an hour we had a rapid canter through very little. It looked as if Treasury officials had covered their bodies in glue and jumped into a vat of statistics only to emerge and have numbers picked off and thrown in for Brown to mangle with a word count that rivalled Gatling’s famous gun.

People used to liken previous chancellors Lamont and Clarke respectively to a badger and a labrador, the former for his shock of starkly contrasting black and white hair, the latter for his comfortably rumpled suits and general demeanour. Today’s chancellor is more a busy spaniel, nosing about the economic landscape quartering and chasing to see what he can pull up.

As a speaker, Brown is relentless and boring. Just look at the reactions of the colleagues who formed his ‘donut’.

Donutting is the activity invented with the televising of parliament.

It’s aim was to ensure that with the house nine-tenths empty most of the time, speakers give the illusion they are being listened to. But donutting lessons seemed to have bypassed the beasts of the front benches. That this Budget was tedious was telegraphed to the audience by Brown’s ‘donuts’.

And what donuts; the care-worn and Iraq-torn Tony Blair trying to look interested before subsiding into torpor. And the corpulent deputy John Prescott who increasingly resembles Jabba the Hutt, appeared to be settling down to his crossword.

Pull out to the wider donut and it was no better. They sat there like cod at fourpence, bored out of their skulls as Gordon shovelled it, never drawing breath and wondering why he mangles his words so that ‘entrepreneurship’ (a good thing) comes out as ‘Audrey’s manure shit’ (presumably a bad thing).

New Labour party chairman John Reed looked as though he was at an old Communist party meeting in Scotland such was the ennui he exhibited. Treasury minister Paul Boateng drummed his fingers in a book. Patricia Hewitt attempted to nod, but managed to look bewildered as Brown droned on about cutting business red tape while hedging about with words such as ‘we’ll consider’ and ‘we’ll look into’. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.

His speechwriters had used tried and tested elements of effective communications.

There were plenty of rules of three, but of course in Whitehall Mandarin, ‘Targeted, distinctive, flexible’ was a favourite. And there was the attempt at humour. Announcing a freeze on spirits tax for the sixth year, Brown declared: ‘This will help whisky producers from all parts of Britain’ bringing wry laughter from fellow Scots on his front bench who realised full well that what this really meant was more jobs for the boys in the land of peat and heather.

And there was a torrent of impenetrable statistics. What eyes remained open, glazed over. But the message was clear. If you think Britain is in the cart, think again. Compared to the others – Japan, Europe, the US – we’re brimming with economic joy.

As a presentation, it was thin and lacklustre. As he built to his crescendo at the end he brushed the microphone. It sounded like the loud tearing up of his script. I am sure many, given the chance, would willingly have helped him do so.

  • Khalid Aziz is a former BBC and ITV journalist and is now a communications consultant.

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