/ 6 March 2008

Tippling ministers sometimes trip on UK budget day

To deliver the longest British budget speech of all time, William Gladstone imbibed a throat-soothing mixture of sherry and beaten egg to help him through a marathon that lasted four hours and 45 minutes.

Benjamin Disraeli reached for brandy and water to deliver the shortest budget — he took just 45 minutes to plot the path for the nation’s finances.

In recent times, ebullient chancellor of the exchequer Kenneth Clarke opted for whisky while his Conservative colleague Geoffrey Howe relied on gin and tonic and, clearly in love with his job, named his dog Budget.

British budgets have seen their stature as political theatre reduced to a shadow of their former self since the Labour Party came to power in 1997.

Gone are the photo-shoots of the chancellor feeding ducks in St James’ Park before his big speech. Delivering his budget, Gordon Brown — now Prime Minister — reached for mineral water.

A Treasury spokesperson exclusively revealed that for his maiden budget speech next Wednesday, Alistair Darling would rely on tap water.

An early victim of tradition was the old, battered red box used since the time of Gladstone in the 1860s. Brown was quick to replace it with a new one hand-crafted by dockyard trainees in his own Scottish constituency.

Embarrassment can strike on the big day.

George Ward Hunt, who at 133kg weighed in as the heaviest chancellor on record, came to the House of Commons in 1869, proudly opened the budget box and found he had left the speech at home.

Prime minister Disraeli must have regretted reassuring Queen Victoria that his chancellor ”has the sagacity of the elephant as well as its form”. He lasted just six months in the job — and certainly could not boast the memory of an elephant.

Hugh Dalton made the cardinal error of telling a reporter details of his 1947 budget as he headed into Parliament. Details of his taxes on beer and dog racing appeared in the last edition of a London evening paper before he had told lawmakers.

Dalton resigned the next day with prime minister Clement Attlee calling him ”a perfect ass”.

For trivia devotees, the word budget comes from the French ”bougette”, a little bag, once used for pills and medication.

Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan put in a bid for the best budget day one-liner, saying it was ”rather like a school speech day — a bit of a bore, but there it is”.

But it was chancellor Derick Heathcoat-Amory who put economic management most neatly in perspective: ”There are three things not worth running for — a bus, a woman or a new economic panacea. If you wait a bit, another one will come along.” – Reuters