Political sketch: Osborne's Pastygate

Treasury/bakery questions with the Chancellor.

Just when Chancellor George Osborne thought he was over the worst he was finally felled by that most potent of class weapons: the Greggs pasty.
After two days in which attention had switched from his disastrously received budget to the Prime Minister's dining companions, he must have believed that respite was in sight.

Indeed, he turned up before the Treasury Select Committee relaxed, flanked by his top officials and clutching all the crib sheets necessary for what was to be the last grilling before the Easter holidays (which in the case of MPs, starts tonight and lasts 19 days).

But all of his preparations were undone when Labour MP John Mann asked him the one question he could not have foreseen: "When was the last time you bought a pasty at Greggs?"

There has never been any love lost between George Osborne, hereditary baronet, St Paul's School and Oxford, and John Mann, hereditary trouble maker, Bradford Grammar and Manchester. But you could see that even George was shocked by the severity of the attack contained in this apparently simple query.

"I can't remember the last time I bought a pasty at Greggs," was the Chancellors reply, as behind him aides rifled through the Red Book to see if there was any other suitable answer. As the committee struggled with the vision of George entering a Greggs establishment to seek out one of their renowned steak mince and tatties specialities, Mr Mann sat back with the smug look of someone who knew he had struck a possibly mortal blow.

All week the Chancellor has been trying to defend his budget as equal for all, despite cutting the top rate of tax to 45p for the wealthy whilst making life harder for five million pensioners and those on benefits.

But even he had no defence against the class card played over the decision to put VAT on the hot pasties that keep thousands going at lunchtime in many of the less wealthy parts of the country.

Had there been a Greggs adjacent to the Treasury during the Budget deliberations, or had there been a delicacy served in the Cameron or Osborne households, then Pastygate may have been avoided.

Instead the law of unintended consequences applied and allowed Mr Mann to echo his leader Ed Miliband with the charge that, clearly, we are not all in this together.

Luckily for the Chancellor, the Select Committee numbers Tory Party deputy chairman Michael Fallon amongst its members. He has been losing weight around London this week diving from TV studio to TV studio as front man and chief apologist for the government since the Budget hit the fan. And he was there for George too, with encouragement to explain away the 45p tax rate and sort-of promise not to cut it again soon. The Chancellor practiced his answer but his heart was not in it.

It was left to another Tory, David Ruffley, to try to come to his support by asking George if he had his Budget time over again would he do the same?

The Chancellor almost smiled.

A knife and fork affair, George? Credit: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.