March 14, 2024

Would fewer Red Box moments lead to better policy?

by Stuart Mackinnon, Carnegie UK

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt outside 11 Downing Street with the Red Box. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Pictures of Chancellor Hunt covered last week’s front pages. But could fewer similar Red Box moments lead to better politics and policy?

If you’ve ever worked in jobs allied to politics or media, you’ll likely have found yourself crowded around a telly, listening to a Chancellor outline his[1] government’s tax and spending plans.

In the hours following the announcements made at the despatch box, campaigners and experts rush to outline the implications for households, for businesses, for the public sector and for our politics. Serious people saying serious things about serious matters. However no matter the flavour of fiscal event (budget, mini-budget or other measures unveiled at a spring or autumn statement), the political and economic theatre can sometimes feel like pantomime.

You might ask yourself whether the weeks of leaks and speculation are the best way of outlining or testing measures which will impact millions of people’s lives. And no sooner has one of these spectacles taken place than are we speculating about the next one.

That’s why I was interested to read a new Institute for Government paper which urged the UK Government to only holding one fiscal event per year. In a report looking at the UK’s fiscal framework, the authors argue “…more fiscal events clearly results in more ad hoc changes than there otherwise would be, because for chancellors an opportunity to stand up in the Commons and make announcements is hard to resist.”

The political motive to announce ‘stuff’ is easy to understand, especially when you’ve any number of organisations urging you to tackle the issues of the day and, in the most recent case, a general election around the corner.

However the paper also makes the case that multiple fiscal events “crowds out strategic thinking, consuming more of Treasury officials’ time on short-term questions over how to tweak policy at fiscal events rather than overall fiscal strategy.”

This point seems more crucial, and the principle of it would seem to apply to far more than fiscal policy (as important as that is).

At Carnegie UK, we’re interested in long-termism in our public policy. It is our view that grappling with the biggest challenges of our time, like tackling engrained poverty as well as the threat of catastrophic climate change, will require a sustained response over a timetable far longer than our electoral cycle.

If, as suggested, high profile political events draw resources from long-term strategic thinking, is the answer to have fewer of them? This approach would give decision-makers less opportunity to change tack, but more time to ensure they’re delivering what they’ve promised earlier.

Maybe it is naïve to think that politicians will give up the opportunity to stand at podiums and outline plans to improve our lives. And the last few years, between the pandemic and spiralling cost of living, has shown that governments sometimes need to deliver a quick response.

But perhaps a future government, looking to ditch the gimmicks and deliver for the long-term, should slash the number of set-piece political events to reduce the opportunity for tinkering and save resources to deliver its ambitions.

[1] There’s never been a female Chancellor