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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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit