Past chancellors would have resigned for revealing details of the budget before the official statement, the Commons Speaker has told MPs, expressing fury at the briefing of a slew of measures to be announced on Wednesday.
In a veiled reference to the former Labour chancellor Hugh Dalton, who resigned after telling a journalist about tax changes just before his 1947 budget, Lindsay Hoyle accused the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, of “riding roughshod” over MPs.
The Treasury has committed to almost £26bn of spending in a rush of announcements before Wednesday’s budget and spending review. On Sunday, Sunak conceded that of £7bn to be pledged in the budget on rail, tram and bus projects outside London, part of the “levelling up” agenda, just £1.5bn is actually new money.
On Monday, the Treasury briefed that there would be almost £6bn to tackle England’s record NHS waiting list and plans for investment in NHS capital funding this week, to help deliver about 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Hoyle granted an urgent question in the House of Commons on Monday so MPs could quiz ministers about the NHS funding, saying it was an attempt to give MPs an early opportunity to scrutinise an announcement that they should have been the first to hear.
“I have made clear repeatedly, and as recently as last Thursday, that ministers must make important announcements first to this chamber,” he said. “Despite those very clear comments, it’s evident that the government Treasury briefed journalists on the content of the forthcoming budget over the weekend, including on NHS funding.”
He said Dame Eleanor Laing, the deputy speaker who chairs the Commons ways and means committee that oversees the budget, was “very upset at the briefing that’s gone out”.
He suggested ministers who had authorised the Treasury releases should reflect on how the convention had changed. “At one time, ministers did the right thing if they briefed before a budget – they walked,” he said, to cheers from the Labour benches. “Yes, absolutely, [they] resigned. Seems to me we’ve got ourselves in a position if you’ve not got it out five days before, it’s not worth putting in.”
He said MPs’ constituents “quite rightly expect the MP to hear it first … It’s not acceptable, and the government shouldn’t try to run roughshod over this. It will not happen.”
Responding to Hoyle’s criticism, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the government “recognised the importance of keeping parliament and the public informed when decisions are taken”.