‘Resign!’: what are the rules on leaking government budgets?

Deputy speaker suggests Rishi Sunak has breached ministerial code

Rishi Sunak
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is facing calls to resign for revealing a wealth of details about the upcoming Budget in advance of his official statement.

House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle accused the chancellor of “riding roughshod” over MPs after the Treasury made a series of media announcements ahead of tomorrow’s key statement.

As Guido Fawkes’ Christian Calgie tweeted this morning, the “sheer amount of briefing” ahead of this Budget “begs the question what rabbits does Rishi possibly have left in his hat”.

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Time to walk?

The latest Budget pre-announcements “appear to have far outstripped the trend” in recent years of leaking chancellors’ plans, with more than £30bn of spending by Sunak already committed, said The Mirror.

A “furious” Hoyle said yesterday that he would continue to force ministers to appear before MPs to account for themselves if they kept briefing the media ahead of Parliament, the paper reported.

“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.”

In what The Guardian described as a “veiled reference” to former Labour chancellor Hugh Dalton, who resigned after telling a journalist about tax changes just before his 1947 Budget, Hoyle said “at one time ministers did the right thing if they briefed before a budget – they walked”.

As shouts of “resign!” were heard in the House, Hoyle added: “Yes absolutely, resign. It seems to me we've got ourselves in a position that if you’ve not got it out five days before, it’s not worth putting out.”

The rules

Hoyle’s deputy, Eleanor Laing, told The Telegraph that Sunak had broken the ministerial code that “clearly says that when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament”.

A government source told the paper that the recent flurry of briefings was “ridiculous” and that the Treasury was a “law unto itself”. The unnamed insider added: “Last week I was thinking: 'Wow, pretty good that so little has been briefed out – safe to say I think otherwise this morning.”

Although ministers have quit for breaching the code in the past, whether and how an alleged breach is investigated “is entirely at the prime minister’s discretion”, according to the Institute for Government.

The think tank noted that critics have pushed for a more impartial observer to make that call.

Other critics have urged ministers to respect tradition as well as the code. Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth said: “I remember a time when chancellors went into purdah before a budget. Perhaps that tradition needs to return.”

Tory MP Peter Bone suggested a different way forward, calling on the Treasury to provide members with copies of the embargoed press releases. He argued: “If it is good enough for the media, it is good enough for us in this House.”

Responding to the criticism, Health Minister Edward Argar told the Speaker: “I hope that you will recognise that I seek to be assiduous in my accountability to this House and in adhering to its protocols and forms.”

He added that Hoyle’s words “will have been heard not just by me but by colleagues in my department and in Her Majesty’s Treasury”.

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