A Budget lesson: how a PR gaffe has caused a political own goal

The hashtag #ToryBingo is apparently in meltdown as the world and his wife – and their friends and family – rush to post their reactions and humorous comments following the Tories’ ill-conceived ‘Budget and Beer’ advert.

The likelihood is that Party Chairman Grant Shapps won’t be enjoying the joke. Nor, one suspects, will George Osborne, who by all rights should be apoplectic at having his thunder stolen by a calamitous and poorly considered move on the part of the Conservative machine. Who knows what Lynton Crosby thinks of this latest ‘barnacle’ on the hull of the Tory electoral ship.

The Budget is often over-hyped and comes across as an exercise somewhere between micro-managing financial policy and rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But in announcing his extensive reforms aimed at pensions and savers, George Osborne revealed what City AM editor Allister Heath immediately took to Twitter to describe as ‘real policy’. But there was also plenty of other good news in a 55 minute announcement that included forecasts of significant economic growth. While the economy is hardly out of the woods, it’s fair to say it’s in better health than at any point since the financial crisis.

George Osborne and Danny Alexander would have expected to do the media rounds trumpeting their success and taking part in a heavyweight debate on the merits of their announcements (although a question or two about support for a younger generation likely to face significant difficulties in employment and property ownership would certainly be in order, as the Budget did appear to prioritise those closer to retirement, who will be a key demographic in the General Election). But instead, they have also had to answer questions about the Tory advert.

It is a gaffe that will cause the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems unwanted, albeit not long-term, damage. It represents a distraction from the Tories’ key messages while at the same time handing some of the initiative back to Labour, who have unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to accuse the Tories of being out of touch. And it’s worth remembering that this is coming in the same week that Education Secretary Michael Gove very publicly criticised the public school presence in Downing Street.

The lessons to be learned from this are one of joined up communications (I doubt George Osborne had seen that advert or would have accepted it if he had) but also tone of messaging. The Budget is a necessarily sombre and serious occasion requiring consideration and gravitas. If you’re a political party, posting an advert about the budget in a style one might find at a bingo hall or bookmakers is out of touch – irrespective of what’s written on it. Don’t expect George Osborne to take advantage of the cut in beer duty by buying whoever designed that advert a pint.

Chris Rogers