A brief(case) history of the Budget Box

The Momentum UK Team 18 March 2014

The unmistakable red briefcase makes an appearance every Budget Day, with the chancellor holding it up for a lengthy photocall before making his speech. It’s just one of the many quirky traditions held in our parliament, but how did it start? We’ve taken a look at the history of the country’s most famous briefcase.

Royal beginnings

Although the tradition of the red box goes back hundreds of years, there is some debate as to exactly how it started. One theory is that it began in the 16th Century. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I sent her representative Francis Throckmorton to visit the Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza, carrying with him a specially made red briefcase filled with black puddings!

According to the company that builds the cases, it was a different monarch who inspired the tradition. The leather merchants Barrow and Gale say that Prince Albert introduced the case in the 19th Century, opting for scarlet as the most prominent colour in his family coat of arms.

Built to last

The first official “Budget box” was made for chancellor William Gladstone in around 1860. The same original briefcase was used until 1997, when newly elected chancellor Gordon Brown ordered a new one, stating that the old one was too shabby looking. Brown commissioned four trainees from the Rosyth dockyard in Scotland to make him a shiny new briefcase - the young people involved also joined the chancellor on the steps of Number 11 for the pre-Budget photocall.

Although the original briefcase remained in use until 1997, Brown wasn’t the first chancellor to reject it. James Callaghan - chancellor from 1964-7 - said it was too small and had a bigger one made in brown leather, before his successor Roy Jenkins requested the original back. Denis Healey also used a different briefcase to deliver some of his “mini-budgets”. After Brown, Alistair Darling returned to using the original, and George Osborne was the final chancellor to wield it before it was retired to the National Archives in 2010.

What’s in the box?

The Budget box is traditionally used to carry the chancellor’s Budget speech, giving it a reputation for containing unpleasant surprises! However, it has occasionally held other items on Budget day:

  • In 1868, chancellor George Ward-Hunt had an embarrassing moment when he arrived at Parliament and opened up his briefcase - only to find that he’d left his speech at home
  • When Norman Lamont was chancellor from 1990-93, it is said that the red briefcase contained a bottle of whisky, while his speech was carried in a plastic bag by William Hague (then Lamont’s aide)
  • Shortly before his 2013 Budget speech, current chancellor George Osborne tweeted a photo of a cat emerging from the briefcase. The cat is believed to be Osborne family pet Freya. Twitter users at the time remarked on how, after only four days on twitter, the chancellor had already discovered the power of a funny cat picture - it was retweeted more than 350 times!

No rabbits in the red box this week - but there was a cat... And also a big boost for #aspirationnation

— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) March 23, 2013

The tatty red box is one of those eccentric British traditions that has stood the test of time. We suspect that, as long as there’s a Budget speech, there will be a red briefcase held aloft outside Number 11 Downing Street. At least now when you see the inevitable photos in the papers - or sit glued to the live Budget Day coverage like us - you can impress your family and friends with your extensive knowledge of the briefcase and its history.