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Sweet dreams are made of free duvets

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Curly has decided we need a new duvet. The one we have is rather small and our nights together have become a Darwinian struggle for survival. It’s usually Curly who loses, thanks to my unbeatable “tuck’n’roll” manoeuvre.

It can’t be any old duvet. He’s been researching it on the internet. It has to be super-king-sized Hungarian goosedown – light and yet warm. Cashing in at an eye-watering £250, this is the bedding of fat cats and oligarchs. We are not going to let the fact we can’t afford to renew our car insurance hold us back. If those bastards deserve a good night’s sleep, hell, so do we.

In preparation for this major investment, Curly has acquired a nought per cent finance credit card. We plan to pay off £25 per month over the next year using our child-benefit money. As he argued, with unanswerable logic, it’s in the children’s interests that we sleep well.

Clearly many people are making similarly daft calculations because Westfield is heaving. Everything is too bright, too shiny: the marble-effect flooring, the sparkling shop windows, the glistening spotlights. I haven’t been anywhere this clean for ages. Security guards strut about like peacocks on steroids. Initially I assume there has been a stabbing, such is the crowd in Carphone Warehouse. But no, it’s just a lot of people who like mobile phones.

The atmosphere in John Lewis is marginally more civilised. We head for the bedding department, palms sweaty with excitement. And lo, there it is, on the top shelf – the king of duvets, its outrageous price tag winking beneath the strip lights. It is so long since we bought anything expensive that I feel sure we will be apprehended at the till and told to put it back.

We select a duvet cover and some sheets, pay and leave carrying our bounty. We are halfway back to the car before I notice Curly is looking peaky. In fact, he is practically hyperventilating. “The lady at the till,” he pants. “She charged us for the sheets but not for the duvet.”

“Are you joking?”

“No.” He holds up the receipt. Sure enough, we have paid only fifty quid. The helpful John Lewis lady must have removed the security tag and then forgotten to put the duvet through the till. My mind is suddenly in a frenzy of frantic calculations. Clearly, we should take it back. John Lewis! The shop you can trust! Stealing from John Lewis is like shagging in a church, or swearing at a granny. It’s just not right. Now, if we’d been in Tesco . . .

We prevaricate, stricken, in front of a brightly lit EXIT sign. Its green arrow seems to be pointing us towards a new, more reckless kind of life: Curly and I, screeching off with the duvet in the boot, outlaws on the run. We could be like Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, only warmer and better rested. But no, we turn around and trudge back to the checkout. Us middle-class types are mugs, right?

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.