Labour exploits Osborne's pasty problem

Osborne's "pasty tax" comes under fire from Miliband.

Full marks to whichever Labour staffer positioned Ed Miliband in front of Greggs during his interview with Sky News earlier today. George Osborne's decision to apply VAT to hot supermarket food [raising the price by 20 per cent], an obscure change announced in last week's Budget, has become a political problem for the government following yesterday's select committee hearing. After admitting that he "can't remember" the last time he bought a pasty at Greggs, Osborne suggested that cold pasties would not be VAT-able, a comment that inspired today's Sun to compare the Chancellor to Marie Antoinette ["Let them eat cold pasty," reads its headline].

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves made a well-timed visit to Greggs.

The tabloid's editorial goes further, declaring that "the Chancellor and his rich Cabinet colleagues cannot begin to understand what it's like to be so hard-up that a sharp rise in the price of a pasty will hurt.

"Unlike Sun readers, they don't worry how to pay for food, rent or petrol. If they ever have done, they certainly can't remember how it feels now -- any more than Mr Osborne can remember the last time he bought a pasty in Greggs."

It's tempting to dimiss this as a bit of knockabout fun but symbolism matters in politics and the current row both reflects and reinforces the view that the government is out of touch with ordinary people. Put simply, it has cut taxes for millionaires and raised them for pasty-eaters [the two categories are, of course, not mutually exclusive, though Osborne's performance suggested they might be]. As ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie has written, class is the Conservatives' "Clause IV" and this week's ComRes poll showed that 66 per cent of voters regard the Tories as "the party of the rich".

Miliband told reporters outside Greggs:

"Not just fuel duty going up, child benefit taken away, tax credits being cut, now even putting 20 per cent on the cost of pasties, sausage rolls, and the Chancellor's excuse? Well, he says you can buy them cold and you can avoid the tax.

"It just shows how out of touch this Government is and it shows that we've got a Budget that is hitting millions of people while cutting taxes for millionaires."

In an attempt at damage limitation, David Cameron told a press conference that he "loves a hot pasty" [although he bought his from the West Cornwall Pasty Company] but offered no hint of a U-turn. Has any Budget ever offered an opposition party so many easy hits?

Ed Miliband speaks to reporters outside a Greggs bakery earlier today.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.