The Budget: Key facts about the Chancellor’s big event

Rishi Sunak will have been Chancellor for less than a month when he stands at the Commons despatch box to deliver his Budget.

– It seems a long time since the last Budget, why is that?

The last one was delivered by Philip Hammond in October 2018.

Mr Sunak’s predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid had been due to deliver a Budget in November, but the general election intervened, forcing him to set a new date of March 11.

That meant 2019 was the first year in recent history without a budget statement – no year in the 20th century passed without at least one, and the same was true of the 21st century until then.

– What happened to Sajid Javid?

A row with Number 10 over his team of special advisers saw him quit rather than agree to sack them all. As a result, Mr Sunak became the new chancellor on February 13, with less than a month to prepare for his first Budget.

Mr Javid became the first chancellor not to deliver a Budget since Iain Macleod, who died shortly after taking office in 1970.

– So what is the Budget?

It is an annual statement by the Chancellor to the House of Commons setting out the state of the nation’s finances and the Government’s proposals for changes to taxation.

– Will anything else be announced?

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility will release its economic forecasts on subjects such as growth, inflation and employment for the next few years.

– Will any tax changes happen straight away?

Some measures – usually including changes to taxes on alcohol and tobacco – come into effect on Budget day or soon after. Others may come in months later. All have to be approved by Parliament in a Finance Bill, tabled following four days of debate on the Budget.

– Who sees the Budget first?

Apart from the ministers and officials involved in drafting it, the monarch is traditionally the first to see the Budget, granting the Chancellor an audience the day before its release. The Budget is presented to senior ministers at a special meeting of Cabinet in 10 Downing Street hours before being unveiled to the House of Commons.

– Why is it called a Budget?

The name comes from the old French word “bougette”, meaning little bag. Statements on financial policy used to be brought to the Commons in a leather bag, but now the Chancellor uses a red despatch box.

Gordon Brown/Budget Box
Gordon Brown had a new Red Box created for his first Budget (Tony Harris/PA)

– What is the famous Red Box?

A wooden box lined with black satin and covered with scarlet leather was made for William Gladstone in around 1860 and was used by successive chancellors for more than 100 years. James Callaghan broke with tradition by using a new box in 1965 and Gordon Brown did the same in 1997. George Osborne used the Gladstone box for his first Budget in 2010.

Norman Lamont, wife and budget
At one of his Budgets in the early 1990s, Norman Lamont held aloft a red box containing a bottle of whisky, rather than his speech (David Giles/PA)

– Is it true the Chancellor can drink alcohol during the Budget speech?

Yes. By tradition, this is the only occasion when a minister can drink alcohol at the despatch box. Gladstone drank sherry with a beaten egg and Benjamin Disraeli had brandy. Geoffrey Howe in the 1980s preferred gin and tonic and Kenneth Clarke whisky, but more recent chancellors Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Philip Hammond have all drunk water.

When Norman Lamont held up his red box for photographers before one of his Budgets in the early 1990s, unbeknown to them it contained only a bottle of Highland Park whisky, with the crucial statement instead carried by aide William Hague – who went on to become Tory leader.

WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE (1809-1898).
William Gladstone delivered the longest continuous Budget speech (PA)

– What are the longest and shortest speeches?

Disraeli’s 1852 statement took five hours, but he had a break. Gladstone spoke continuously for four hours and 45 minutes the following year. In 1867, Disraeli delivered a Budget speech lasting only 45 minutes. Modern chancellors tend to take around an hour.

– Has anything ever gone wrong?

George Ward Hunt arrived at the Commons on Budget day in 1869 to find that he had left his speech at home. In 1947, Hugh Dalton was forced to resign after leaking key parts of his statement to a reporter. Derick Heathcoat-Amory collapsed while delivering the 1960 Budget. More recently, Nigel Lawson stopped in his tracks after his staff put the pages of his statement in the wrong order.

– Anything unusual to watch out for this time?

Dame Eleanor Laing will be in the Speaker’s chair – the first time the Budget has had a female keeping order in the House.

The job of chairing the Budget debate has traditionally been held by the Chairman of Ways and Means, the most senior deputy speaker, and Ms Laing is the first holder of that post.

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