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 is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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