To mark this year’s budget, I wrote the inside story of Danny Alexander and his yellow budget box for the Times Red Box. They have graciously allowed me to reproduce it here, paywall-free.
“Whose idea was this,” began the email from an actual Member of Parliament to the Lib Dem press office, “Danny with a children’s lunch box?”
It was the day after last year’s budget and the image in question – which the MP had spotted on Twitter – was of Danny Alexander holding a SpongeBob SquarePants lunchbox aloft on the steps of the Treasury.
It wasn’t meant to be this way.
Throughout the coalition years it was borderline impossible to get any meaningful coverage, and therefore credit, for the Lib Dem bits of budgets. In coalition, the budget was no longer the Chancellor’s one man show, it was a negotiation between what was known as the ‘Quad’ – Cameron, Osborne, Alexander and Clegg. So each time round it became a long, drawn out process. Ideas were floated and thwarted. Deals were cut. Compromises were reached. It was in this way that the Lib Dems delivered, step-by-step, the raising of the tax free allowance to £11,000 – which every year Osborne would then take the glory for at the Dispatch Box.
We tried staging budget day photo ops on the banks of the Thames declaring ourselves the authors of the tax cut. We rushed spokespeople out to broadcast cameras to repeat the message ad infinitum. We bent the ears of every journalist we could find and clogged up their inboxes and Twitter feeds. One time we even rented a bi-plane to trail a message about Lib Dem tax cuts across the sky.
And every time, we would be lucky if we got so much as a single mention on the evening news bulletins or in the next day’s papers. In 2013, we had a photo op involving a massive orange banner disrupted by an angry heckler – and he got more coverage than we did.
By 2015, we had pretty much given up on getting any coverage on the day itself, so Danny had a new idea. He had negotiated with Osborne that, for the first time ever, the Office for Budget Responsibility would publish forecasts based on the different economic plans of the two coalition parties. This would, for the first time, allow a Liberal Democrat to stand at the Dispatch Box and set out what our economic policy would mean for the country in the years to come. This would take place the day after the Budget, meaning that Osborne kept his big day and we now had our own ‘Danny Day’.
To add a bit more colour for the nation’s newsdesks, we planned that when Danny was finished in the chamber he would head outside and unveil an election poster. The image was to be borne on the side of a poster van, covered in a tarpaulin that Danny would remove with a flourish in front of the cameras. Except it never showed up.
The big reveal was due to take place near Parliament at midday, but by 10.30am Tim Hobden, our Head of Press, was getting nervous that he had not yet heard from the van driver, Bernie. So Tim called Bernie to check on his progress and was told not to worry, he was putting the poster on the van now.
“Where are you?” Tim asked with an air of trepidation.
“Oxford,” came Bernie’s reply.
“No, Oxford. I’ll be leaving in a minute.”
It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that getting from Oxford to central London in an hour and a half in the middle of the working day is a hell of a push. There followed expletives, Googling, frantic speed and distance calculations and phone calls in which said van driver was asked what his ‘top speed’ was. Eventually, we accepted that he wasn’t going to make it. It was the latest in a long line of disappointments for the Lib Dem press office.
We needed a Plan B – another photo op to add a bit of colour to Danny’s big announcement. That was when one of Danny’s team had an idea. A few days earlier at the party’s spring conference, Danny gave a speech in which he talked up what a Liberal Democrat-only budget would look like, which was aided by a prop: a budget box that had been painted yellow in the back garden of a party adviser’s house.
Bear in mind, this was the run up to the General Election. The message was ‘this is what a Liberal Democrat Chancellor of the Exchequer would do’ (in short: cut less than the Tories, borrow less than Labour and invest massively in national infrastructure). So how do you visualise the idea of a Lib Dem Chancellor? Why not recreate that iconic budget day image of the Chancellor holding aloft his red box, but make it yellow instead? It was a bit cheesy but went over well within the confines of a Lib Dem conference hall.
Now, the idea was to bring the yellow box out of retirement (it had actually been auctioned off to raise campaign funds) so that Danny could pose with it on the steps of the Treasury. It was hastily recovered and Danny duly held it aloft with pride for the assorted snappers, camera crews and sketchwriters. The pics quickly found their way to Twitter, where they were swiftly photoshopped into images of Danny posing with, among other things, a Golf Sale sign, a Playstation, the Yellow Pages, a Meccano box and, yes, a SpongeBob SquarePants lunch box. A meme was born.
You might think that, after all that, we’d give up on Bernie and the poster van. We didn’t. Not only was he asked to drive the van to London and leave it on standby, covered by a tarpaulin, in a car park in Paddington, but a couple of weeks later we used him for another poster launch, this time in an empty, rain-soaked car park near Stockport, witnessed only by a few journalists and a handful of Labour activists with bright red posters.