The Hedget: avoiding straight answers with last week’s Budget
The pasty tax budget of 2012 was a PR disaster for the coalition government. But it was a mere minishambles next to last week’s effort. We saw two out of three fiscal rules crumble, the Chancellor’s chances of delivering a surplus by the end of the parliament rated as no higher than 50/50, and then the resignation of a cabinet minister. This was followed by the political equivalent of a youth-club pile-on, as the world and his pensions minister weighed in to the argument with rhetorical fists flying.
‘Beware the IDS of March’, said Twitter. Politicos sniggered. It was so bad that it reminded me of a moment in Season 4 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (bear with me) where Buffy’s new boyfriend discovers her penchant for dealing with world-ending threats on a weekly basis, and is moved to ask, ‘What’s the plural of apocalypse?’
The story has a way to go still. As I write, we await the arrival of George Osborne in Parliament. He will have the look of a man steeling himself to receive a bullet, but not knowing from which bench it will be fired.
And yet, despite all this, there are some positives to cling to for the Government. It’s been a masterclass in avoiding the facts, a truth-dodger’s tour de force. If you ever mess up at work and need to wriggle out of a corner, all the lessons you need are here.
So here are five techniques to try – five steps to mealy-mouthed mastery:
1. Answer in haste, clarify at leisure
Secretary of State: We will make no more welfare cuts in this parliament.
Treasury official: No more welfare cuts are planned.
This is a real favourite in political circles. It sounds definitive, but isn’t. Saying you’re not planning to do something allows you to do it later, in an off-the-cuff let’s-be-spontaneous type way. I’m not planning to have a biscuit this morning. Oh look, chocolate hob nobs!
2. Answer a slightly different question to the one you’ve been asked
Member of the public: Prime Minister, will you cut tax credits?
Prime Minister: I don’t want to cut tax credits.
PRIME MINISTER ISSUES EMPHATIC DENIAL oh wait hang on
3. Include a vast amount of detail to induce a state of catatonic acceptance
Andrew Marr: Are the disability cuts immoral?
Iain Duncan Smith: I think actually what we have here is a proposal which we put out as a consultation last year to look at a problem that had come about through, without getting too complicated, court cases and other judgements that had made some changes to this. That consultation was, I always felt, to be part of a much wider programme that would look at and consult further on bigger changes that bring into line the present disability benefit, PIP, and other things like social care and healthcare, which are all fractured. I wanted to look at it as a wider change that got the money that was necessary and the support, practical support for those most in need…not to get too detailed about this, but I simply say that the problem was the institution of a welfare cap which was lowered directly after the last election pretty arbitrarily. And that meant that everything we were doing put us above the line essentially, as you saw, tax credit changes put us above the line in costs, and this was meant to go above the line because of the changes.
Five lines in, we’ve all forgotten what the question was. Result! I’m not making this up, by the way. It’s what he actually said.
4. Caveat literally everything
Interviewer: Is this Budget unfair?
Interviewee: I think we’re in danger of drifting in a direction where some people might perceive some of our actions as potentially edging towards a space that a small minority might deem slightly unfair.
5. If in doubt, tough it out
MP: Will you resign, Prime Minister?