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.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.