Budget day – it arrives earlier every year

Featured Image: ‘The Chancellor makes final preparations to his first Budget speech‘ by Simon Walker (HM Treasury) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Link to the new license deed. Link to the old license.

On Wednesday 27th October, Rishi Sunak will unveil a much awaited Autumn Budget. It will be a profound moment which will set out the government’s plans to steer the economy out of the darkness of the pandemic and into the light of an uncertain future. The measures put forward will have an immense effect on everyone as the winners and losers of government spending proposals are announced. 

I, along with every other committed ‘Politico’ in the country, will be glued to the television screen. Most will be eagerly awaiting the response from the Institute for Fiscal Studies or the eloquent analysis by Faisal Islam, but there are some like myself who will tune in not for economic content or political drama, but to celebrate Budget day with a good old-fashioned round of Budget day games.

A major holiday in the political calendar, squeezed midway between the regular May elections, Budget days offer a sense of drama and excitement paralleled only by election nights. It is a date that is celebrated by political obsessives across the country and provides ample opportunities for fun. Budget days have been keenly followed by bookmakers for decades and this year is no different. Gambling isn’t an essential part of the fun, for many it is the mere excitement of the occasion.

The opening game of the day is guessing what colour the chancellor of the Exchequer’s tie will be. This is usually one of the easier factors to predict: red for Labour chancellors and blue for Conservatives. At the 2017 Budget, betting company William Hill gave 1/4 odds on then-chancellor Philip Hammond wearing a blue tie and a whopping 16/1 odds on it being pink. Hammond — not known for his bold dress sense — followed the herd and wore the blue, though some of us still believe he should have placed the entirety of the government’s money on himself and stunned the doubters. Sunak is slightly more stylish than his predecessor and could surprise people, however, last March he brought controversy upon the process by wearing a blueish-grey tie. Uproar ensued, but it was generally agreed that ‘blue’ was an acceptable description.

After the tie colour thrill comes another important calculation: the chancellor’s choice of drink. There is a wonderful tradition in the House of Commons that the chancellor of the Exchequer is the only person in the chamber allowed to drink alcohol. A privilege reserved for when they give their long Budget speeches at the dispatch box. In the past, this privilege has been keenly used. Disraeli drank brandy with water, while Gladstone enjoyed a sherry with a beaten egg. Howe drank a G&T, Lawson a spritzer, and Kenneth Clarke favoured a glass of Scotch whisky. Since then, however more responsible men have inhabited No. 11. Brown, Darling, Osborne, Hammond and Sunak have all selected water as their chosen beverage. This might say that they’re serious about the job at hand, but it ruins the enjoyment of Budget day games players up and down the country.

Once the trivialities of the chancellor’s dress sense and drink orders are dealt with, players move on to the trivialities of the speech. Big announcements such as tax rises or spending increases have usually been leaked to the press beforehand, so it is political buzzwords, slogans and subtle mentions of marginal constituencies that listeners should look out for. This autumn, odds-tracker Smarkets has compiled a list of words and phrases that gamblers can predict the chancellor will say in his speech. There are simple and predictable expressions such as: ‘Whatever it takes’, ‘Uncontrolled immigration’, and ‘Brexit’ as well as more unexpected ones including: ‘Global trading nation’ and ‘Great British pub.

I find that this game, nicknamed ‘Budget Day Bingo’, is best played by focusing on the geographic areas mentioned. The most politically significant battleground regions and constituencies usually find their way into the chancellor’s speech next to a new spending proposal. In March, Sunak went into great detail about how his Freeport plans would benefit Teesside. Coincidentally, the Tories won a by-election in Hartlepool just two months later. He also spoke of extra funding for his new Towns Deal that would help “from Castleford to Clay Cross; Rochdale to Rowley Regis; and Whitby to Wolverhampton”. Odd that these six English towns — chosen completely at random from a group of forty-five — create an alliterative style and all happen to lie in seats Labour requires to succeed at the next General Election…

This year, I predict that phrases which seek to cushion the increased tax burden blow might sneak their way into the speech. ‘Tough decisions’ and ‘Those with the broadest shoulders’ are my best guesses, but it might be that Sunak seeks to shift the focus from necessary taxation to fiscal responsibility, perhaps bringing out an old-favourite that annoys economists so much: ’Magic money tree’. As for the marginals, it is very difficult to forecast. The best strategy is to predict areas poised for a by-election. This means that Leicester will be a probable target, as well as Old Bexley & Sidcup — where the Tories will likely be fearful of another upset as seen in Chesham & Amersham. Various scandals also make by-elections in Delyn and Wakefield possibly imminent, Tory-held marginals which could be embarrassing losses.

Budget day is a political holiday that can be celebrated in many ways though. A more traditional manner in which the festivities can be enjoyed is through the medium of alcohol. Drinking every time the chancellor says ‘World-beating’, ‘Levelling up agenda’, or ‘Optimistic about the future’ makes a speech about government economic policy a tad more interesting. Participants can also have a drink when the chancellor sips from his own and soon they realise why heads of the treasury no longer choose hard spirits as their choice of refreshment. Relaying the OBR’s fiscal projections is difficult enough sober, let alone after one’s had a few.

Some say that the true meaning of Budget day has been abandoned and that now it is just an excuse for gambling and binge-drinking. These cynics have forgotten though what Budget day is really about: bringing people together. No matter if you revel in the celebrations alone or with family and friends, Budget day is a truly magical time of year that brings political nerds together from Aberdeen to Ashfield, Wrexham to Reading and Grimsby to Glamorgan. 

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