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

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.