Fascinating facts (honest) about The Budget

From the history of the red box to boozing in the Commons, here's everything quite interesting you need to know about the most important days in British economics

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Budget day – the happy occasion when the Chancellor holds up a red box and tells us how much tax we should pay – is upon us.

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To mark it, here are some of the most interesting facts about the UK budget for your perusal…

So what’s this box then….

The box that Chancellors traditionally wave from the door of their residence at 11 Downing Street was first used by Victorian statesman William Ewart Gladstone when the future Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He needed something to carry his hefty speeches round in (and they were hefty, his budget addresses went on for hours). So a special box measuring 14.5 x 10 inches was commissioned and inlayed with red satin. It caught on.

Do they still use it?

Lord Callaghan was the first Chancellor to break with tradition in 1965 when he used a new box until the old one came back in vogue. This was used until very recently by almost every Chancellor except Gordon Brown who commissioned a new one. The box has since been retired. George Osborne, the previous Chancellor, last used it seven years ago when it was on its last legs and it too was retired to the National Archives.

Have their been any budget mishaps?

Yes. The best involved George Ward Hunt who arrived at the Commons in 1869 and opened the budget box only to find he had left his speech at home. He only lasted six months in the job.  Lloyd George’s power of speech deserted him after the first three-and-a-half hours of his 1909 budget speech and he was allowed 30 minutes to get his vocal cords back in working order. Nigel Lawson, the 1980s Conservative chancellor, was once stopped in his tracks mid-sentence during the budget speech after his staff put the pages in the wrong order.

Does every chancellor deliver a budget?

Yes. Pretty much. However there was one Chancellor who has failed to deliver his speech. The Tory Iain Macleod. But that was because he died soon after his appointment in 1970…

Booze …

Booze is always a big issue on budget day. Will it go up or down? What kind of booze? The working man’s pint or the posh man’s sherry. Expect a lot of booze talk…

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Does the Chancellor enjoy a drink?

Funny you should ask. There is also an antiquated tradition surrounding the hard stuff: only the Chancellor is permitted to take alcohol into the chamber of the House of Commons on budget day. And until recently they usually did. Winston Churchill sipped brandy, Hugh Dalton drank milk and rum, Selwyn Lloyd oped for whisky and water, while Hugh Gaitskell went for orange juice and rum.  And there’s more. Kenneth Clarke knocked back the whisky, Geoffrey Howe was a gin and tonic fellow, and Benjamin Disraeli glugged brandy and water. Gladstone, who delivered 12 budgets, more than any other chancellor, was known to enjoy sherry and beaten egg. Party pooper Gordon Brown chose 100% natural Scottish mineral water instead of alcohol and since then Chancellors have eschewed the hard stuff…

It’s not actually called the budget

The proper name is The Finance Bill which Parliament enacts. The budget speech is delivered in the spring and outlines its contents. However, the Finance Bill proper is only itself presented to Parliament some time after budget day, and is debated for days or even weeks afterwards. It’s been known to pass into law as late as July.

They can be a bit dull…

The shortest budget speech was just 45 minutes and given by Benjamin Disraeli in 1867. Recent chancellor Gordon Brown came close to beating Disraeli’s record – one of his speeches came in at 51 minutes. The longest was delivered by our friend and red box pioneer William Gladstone in 1853. It lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes and reportedly bored people to tears. Gladstone also holds the record as the man to deliver the most budgets – twelve.

But there can be occasional laughs along the way

The politicians are always on the lookout for funny or soundbite-friendly remarks that will get picked up on the news. In 2012 Ed Miliband cited ITV drama Downton Abbey when laying into David Cameron. “We all know it’s a costume drama,” he thundered. “They think it’s a fly on the wall documentary.” It certainly beat George Osborne’s best gag that year. “This country borrowed its way into trouble… now we’re going to earn our way out.” Oh my sides…

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The Budget 2017 coverage begins on BBC2 at 11.30am and on ITV at 12.20pm… Enjoy!