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Let them eat black fig soufflé

2010 November 21
by Paul Vallely

On the morning school run I routinely get nagged to switch over to Chris Evans. One day last week I gave in, since some preposterous grumpy republican professor was on the Today programme suggesting that Prince William and Kate Middleton should get married in a garden shed and serve ham sandwiches to their guests.  But if this is the Age of Austerity clearly it has not filtered across to Radio 2. There the presenter was taking bids for an auction in which the seven top bidders could spend a weekend driving seven of the world’s most exclusive sports cars.

People were ringing in to bid £10,000 for the pleasure. Then £20,000 and rising. By the time we got to the school gates the seven winners had bid around £60,000 a head for the 48 hours of speeding thrills.  The auction was in aid of Children in Need. Yet even if the cause was worthwhile it still astonished me that there were quite so many people out there willing – and able – to find tens of thousands of pounds in hard cash for a weekend’s entertainment.

But then, if you look around, there are plenty of signs that these are not the lean years for many. A London hedge fund the other day made £250m on a single mining deal and has returned 90 per cent on its investments this year – when the rest of us are lucky to get 3 per cent at the building society. The banks are set to pay out a total of £7 billion in bonuses this year – though there are “fears” this could be cut to a mere £4bn. The couple who ran off from a Michelin-starred restaurant without paying, after pretending to slip outside for a smoke, aroused no suspicions because their £572 bill for two was a “pretty average” spend. The boom in e-books, a publisher claimed, was down to investment bankers buying books they will never get round to reading.

If “we are all in this together” some are travelling first class while huge numbers are condemned to steerage. That much was made clear last week by the blundering comments of the prime ministerial adviser Lord Young of Graffham who was forced to resign after saying that the majority of British people had “never had it so good” as they had had in “this so-called recession”. The only people complaining are those “who think they have a right for the state to support them”.

Before too long, he mused, over the clink of expensive cutlery muffled by fine linen in the Roux Brothers newest eatery, “people will wonder what all the fuss was about”.  The imminent loss of 100,000 public-sector jobs a year, he said with a statistician’s disregard for the passion and pain of individual human lives, was within “the margin of error” in the context of the overall labour market.

The uproar was immediate. One commentator compared the remark to that of the Tory MP Anthony Steen, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, that voters were “jealous” because of his “very, very large house” . Another recalled Barbara Bush’s observation that Hurricane Katrina survivors ought to have been pleased to be housed in the Houston Astrodome as they were “underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”  Tumbrel remarks is the political jargon for the genre. Let them drink Coke.

Before he went Lord Young apologised for his “inaccurate and insensitive” remarks. Yet the real trouble was not that he got things wrong but that he revealed an unpalatable truth. He let down the Coalition guard, exposing the inner workings of David Cameron’s carefully-constructed political metanarrative that major public spending cuts have been forced on him by the profligacy of his predecessors. The Labour accusation that these are Tory cuts for ideological reasons, to further the interests of their supporters, has gained credibility.

What Young said was true, so far as his own people were concerned. Throughout the recession most people with a mortgage have been saving “three, four, five, six hundred pounds a month… free of tax,” he said. “Mortgage interest payments, which are many people’s biggest monthly expense, have never been lower.” True, but only 11.4 million families in the UK have mortgages. To those older folk who rely on evaporating pensions or interest on their savings things have been desperate.  And nothing has got better for those whose main or only income is from benefits – many of which are now to be slashed. Tens of thousands of the poorest families are to suffer the biggest cuts.

One woman in a terraced house in Grimsby tells the story of all this far more eloquently than any statistics could. Aged 61 she had been looking after her grandson, who was categorised by his teachers as having special needs. But the boy became too much for her and was sent away to school. She lived only on the state pension, but her rent – £105 a week – was covered by housing benefit.

But because her grandson had left that was now to be cut to £75. The Coalition is expecting her to move to somewhere cheaper, browbeat her landlord into reducing the rent, or find the £30 balance from her pension. “It leaves me £20 a week for food and heating,” she said. Pointing to a blanket the woman, who has bronchitis, added, “that’s my heating”.

There are 80,000 pensioners in private rented homes like hers. They will be among those who bear the brunt of the regressive changes in tax and spending this government has introduced which will hit the poorest fifth of the population hardest.

Over his lunch at Roux – where foie gras, red leg partridge and black fig soufflé cost £55 a head – the ex-Thatcherite cabinet minister (and now ex-Cameron adviser) displayed an extraordinary detachment from the reality of life in Coalition Britain. Out there the number of people struggling to pay their mortgage has nearly doubled during the past year, Shelter estimates. More than half of families with credit card or other unsecured debts are in difficulties, the Bank of England says. Some 1.3m workers have been made redundant during the recession, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests. And sales at supermarkets and grocers have dropped at the fastest pace on record over the last three months as hard-pressed consumers cut back on buying food.

Lord Young’s remarks has let slip the mask of a Coalition which only a few days ago claimed that henceforth “wellbeing” will be central to their economic policy – and then promptly scrapped Harriet Harman’s last law which would have required education authorities, health trusts and regional development agencies to spend more of their budgets on Britain’s most vulnerable people.

Lord Young has gone now, to spend more time with his foie gras. But the rest of this cabinet of millionaires remain and now we know, what we always suspected, that they just don’t care.

They sit blithely as the Home Secretary Teresa May trots out the hoary old myth about being for “equality of opportunity” rather than “equality of outcome”. That is code for devil take the hindmost.  And switching over to Chris Evans won’t make things any better.

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