The Journal of Lynton Charles, Fiduciary Secretary to the Treasury

Monday We are in "purdah" here at Fort Knox. A few weeks ago, a memo arrived for all of us ministers, pointing out that we were now in a state of official dumbness, and that we must - for the sake of the economy and of propriety - keep our lips buttoned, our tongues stilled and our gobs zipped. Chancellors have fallen and governments have been broken because of the leak of Budget details.

This is all good fun. It means that you can spend all day on some incredibly abstruse detail of company taxation that no one except the director of a windsurfing manufacturer employing between eight and 20 people would possibly care about, and still walk around with that infuriating secretive smile on your face. Loads of jobsworths must have done this during the war, allowing the impression to build up that they were breaking the Enigma code, when in fact they were in charge of toilet-paper rationing.

At 11am, we all have a Budget briefing with Desmond, Mr Brown's low-key replacement for the late Alfie J Pratt. Desmond loves his new job. He's bubbling over with the importance of it all, so much so that the occasional hint of excited squeak enters his otherwise featureless monotone. Listening to a conversation involving Desmond and aSmith is usually like hearing an exchange between a lathe and a hedge-strimmer, but today is different. Desmond knows that - in the middle of all the natural disappointments of mid-term - the economy is the one thing that we can, incontrovertibly, crow about. And aSmith is on a Mogadon high after having comprehensively vanquished El Lippo in Treasury Questions last week: Lancelot defeated by Sancho Panza.

But today, Desmond is announcing a big change of tack.

"This week," he tells us, "the Egg will make a speech saying that tax is bad and less tax is good." He looks around the room. "He will attack us for stealth taxes. And, of course, as you all know, he's right."

He continues. "This coincides with all this talk about our heartlands and activists being pissed at us for not doing enough for the poor, lame and meek. Which, as we equally all know, is wrong.

"So, if we are going to get flak for taxing more, and flak for not spending enough, we have to decide which way to go. And the Great Powers have come together and decided to alter public course. We reckon (a) that our reputation for prudence is secure and (b) that there is still a big demand for public services. So . . ." He takes a deep breath.

"So, we are going to 'fess up. We're going to admit that we have indeed taxed a weeny bit more, but that this has been necessary to fund schools and hospitals."

Light breaks through the faces round the table. Brilliant! We tell our troops that we're doing plenty for them, while the Egg is left with a strategy that looks as though it will demand the dismantling of everything that everybody holds dear. The more he goes on about cutting tax, the more the voters will see - in their minds' eyes - trolleys in corridors and schools with collapsing roofs.

Desmond then changes subject and tells us that the 1p tax cut will go ahead, and also that there will be a big package to help working mothers. Finally, he reminds us about us all being in purdah.

Tuesday Ha! Purdah schmurdah! Everything Desmond said about the shift yesterday appears on the front page of the Times today. Together with a story in the Independent about funding working mothers and another in the Telegraph suggesting that there will be no tax cuts in the Budget. Oh, the black arts! Leak a goody here, depress an expectation there! Just when you think that the Great Powers may have lost the plot, they prove that they're as bloody clever as they ever were.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us