This week sees two set-piece events in danger of being ruined by impatience and spin.
On Wednesday, Philip Hammond unveils his first budget since he moved its timing from March to November, ending the farce of the Pre-Budget, or Autumn, Statement so beloved of Gordon Brown. When I say “unveiled” should I say “confirmed” as it has become a tradition of Chancellors of the Exchequer to leak most of the juicy elements of the statement to the press in the days ahead of the statement?
Spreadsheet Phil, surely the least charismatic Chancellor since, er, Alistair Darling, has allowed his spin doctors to leak the following in recent days:
Increased spending on housing;
A levy on plastic bottles;
Reform of corporation tax;
Changes to the way housing associations’ debt is accounted for;
A roll out of driverless cars;
Extension of young persons’ rail cards.
There may be more I’ve missed but the days of a Chancellor being sacked for leaking part of the Budget – as Hugh Dalton was in 1947 – are well passed. Former Chancellor Ken Clarke moaned back in 1999 that: “Ever since Gordon Brown has been Chancellor, he has trailed his Budget, sometimes with misleading trails. I think it is deplorable." Sorry Ken, it’s only got worse.
At least the Budget was delivered in a fairly leak free environment for over a century. The more recent late November set piece – Black Friday – was barely established in Britain before it became prone to more leaks than the Jumblies’ sailing craft.
The idea of a pre-Christmas sale originated in the US as a way of signalling the start of the orgy of consumerism that is the “Holidays” season. It is timed to follow Thanksgiving, which celebrates the naïve kindness of the native Americans with a slap-up meal amidst travel chaos, and seeped across the Atlantic a decade or so ago, initially as a way of shifting electrical goods.
Now everything is subject to Black Friday offers – from baby clothes to printer ink. And the marketeers for the hard-pressed retailers are so desperate to grab the attention of British shoppers that the Black Friday offer emails pepper the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. My first arrived in late October. Argos’ “black Friday event” lasts more than a week!
Like the Chancellor’s leaks, this impetuous marketing lessens the impact of the occasion. I’m often asked by clients “should we leak this” and I always answer: “What do want to achieve by the leak?”. Is it to feed a rapacious press or will it gain you a strategic advantage? Rarely is it the latter. So I advise keeping their counsel.
Leaking is as much a science as an art. It should generate surprise and put rivals on the back foot. Mr Hammond and the British retail community need to realise that by abusing it they lessen the impact.