Yesterday the Chancellor delivered his first Spring Budget. While plenty of analysis over the extension of pandemic spending is already in the press, the other notable element was the massive increase in communication tactics at play.
Rishi Sunak embraces social media and professional comms in a way that comes off as slick and, perhaps, overly groomed. Even his geekiness (including his penchant for Star Wars and Mexican Coca-Cola) is calculated to get social media engagement and make him seem accessible. As a former investment banker married into one of the richest families in India, accessibility is an important part of his brand he’s clearly trying to cultivate.
Previous government spending announcements featured Rishi’s signature at the bottom of the graphic where the Conservative logo would typically be, a move that many point to as proof that he has Prime Ministerial ambitions.
In the run-up to the budget, Rishi’s team dropped both a five-minute promo video and a longer professionally filmed virtual meeting with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. The latter clearly targeted to show voters he cares about doing good by the hospitality industry in a way that wouldn’t have resonated with anyone actually in that industry.
Nearly every announcement in the budget was pre-briefed, in a move that seemed calculated to get ahead of the messaging. Even the Chancellor’s press conference was held on the day of the budget, instead of the day after as it has been in the past.
It seems like Sunak is trying to write his own stories – giving away announcements to friendly journalists and getting his own version of events in before the next day’s morning papers come out.
Looking at the budget itself is very telling. Support now and tax rises later – from 2024. The sleek photo shoots and the delayed (but, as Rishi insists, necessary) refilling of the government’s coffers point to the next election, which may very well be in 2023 in order to get ahead of the pain of a freeze in personal taxation thresholds and a rise in corporation tax to the highest level in 28 years. Eagle-eyed commentators will be watching for any attempts from the Government to overturn the Fixed Term Parliament Act which would give Boris Johnson the flexibility to call the election ahead of this Parliament’s five-year term.
However, Sunak’s promise to be “honest with the people” may yet come back to haunt his Prime Ministerial ambitions. While he has certainly wrong-footed Labour over his decision to increase corporation tax, he has kept backbench Tories on a state of alert with the prospect of current and future tax rises.
Moreover, as is always the way with modern budgets, the devil is in the detail. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has said that the public spending cuts and £50bn tax rises outlined yesterday will cause “pain” and “feel a bit like austerity.” A word any future candidate to be Prime Minister won’t want on his social media feed.