Osborne gets away with regressive VAT rise thanks to Lib Dem cover

Harman on fiery form as she lays into coalition’s first, welfare-slashing Budget.

The extent to which there is unity in the coalition was vividly demonstrated as George Osborne delivered the government's first Budget this afternoon, measured by the times at which Nick Clegg chose to nod, as he frequently did, and when he chose not to.

The Lib Dem leader looked grim-faced as the Chancellor introduced an increase in regressive VAT to 20 per cent, a policy which, as Harriet Harman reminded the House, the Lib Dems once described as a "secret VAT bombshell".

The acting Labour leader also quoted David Cameron as saying: "It's very regressive. It hits the poorest hardest."

Harman went on to ridicule the Lib Dem frontbenchers as "fig leaves" for the Tories, and turned Vince Cable's own memorable "from Stalin to Mr Bean" attack on its head by describing the Business Secretary's transformation from "national treasure to Treasury poodle". Cable smiled.

The other regressive headline from the Budget -- and again a moment when an otherwise nodding Clegg merely looked down at the floor -- came when Osborne announced, like his heroine Margaret Thatcher, that he was freezing child benefit for three years. This is a proposal pushed by Iain Duncan Smith, who has misleadingly been portrayed in recent years as a kind of reborn Robin Hood with a mission to help the "vulnerable". Progressive it was not. Nor was the abolition of the pregnancy grant.

On the other hand, an assured Osborne talked the talk of redistribution (he even referred to the Cameron-led administration as a "progressive alliance") and the widely trailed move to enhance the bracket of lowest-paid out of income tax -- a step on the way of lifting the lowest income-tax threshold to £10,000 -- was indeed designed to incentivise jobs, and goes a long way to calming any Lib Dem jitters.

But neither that, nor a new bank levy set for next year, stopped Harman laying into what she called "a Tory Budget that will throw people out of work, hold back growth and harm vital public services". She added: "This is the same old Tories." David Miliband, running for the Labour leadership, immediately described it as a " 'give with one hand, punch with the other' Budget".

Finally, the true colours of this government, especially on welfare, are beginning to be laid bare. The Labour opposition, including the leadership candidates, have their work cut out. Harman sounded genuinely pained at the Lib Dems' decision to prop up the Tories' agenda. But this is only the start. Let no one say there are no dividing lines in British politics.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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