George Osborne: like Fernando Torres, only less effective

While the Chancellor waffled on about how “we are all in this together”, it was announced that the Queen was receiving a 16 per cent boost to her Government grant and the likes of Torres will get a staggering tax break next year. That is a lot of "spare r

 

I must admit some excitement as George Osborne declared “One of your company slogans is a very fitting catchphrase for what I want to talk about” to the assembled crowd of Morrisons employees. I was quite looking forward to discovering precisely how “STOP! Did you get the quiche?” related to our fiscal policy. Imagine my disappointment when the slogan in question turned out to be “Every Penny Matters”.

In a speech hailed by some as the Chancellor’s “man of the people” moment – presumably because he appeared to have gone to sleep Julie Andrews and woken up Dick Van Dyke – he proceeded to outline why his savage attack on the safety net that is our system of welfare was entirely justified. It says everything about this man, that welfare reforms which he resisted at the start of his tenure because of cost – so much so, that Iain Duncan Smith was rumoured to be on the verge of resignation – are now claimed as his own. What changed? They turned out to be quite popular.

According to Osborne, anyone who expresses concern about these reforms is guilty of spouting “ill-informed rubbish” and “shrill, headline-seeking nonsense”. This includes Crisis, Shelter, the National Housing Federation, the Children’s Society, Citizens Advice, Disability Rights UK, Mencap, Scope, the National Autistic Society, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Disability Alliance and naturally, that shrill cesspit of communism, the Church of England.

“This month, nine out of ten working households will be better off as a result of the changes we are making.” At the risk of being shrill and ill-informed, what about last month? Or next month? What about non-working households, like pensioners? What about the tenth household in Osborne’s carefully chosen equation? How about some figures to support these claims? A head for detailed figures, terrifyingly, does not appear to be the Chancellor’s strong suit.

“In 2010 alone, payments to working age families cost £90bn,” he said. “That means that one in every six pounds of the tax that working people like you pay was going on working age benefits”, he continued. The written version of his speech circulated earlier, on the other hand, claimed that such payments “cost £75bn” and that this represented “one in every seven pounds”. These two versions are not even internally consistent. The first means that the relevant tax take in 2010 was £540bn (90x6). The second suggests it was £525bn (75x7). The man in charge of our economy is making up figures, give or take £15bn pounds. Let’s hope credit rating agencies were not watching too closely.

Not five minutes later, Osborne went on to mount an emotional defence of the reduction of the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p as “an economic essential”. “In a modern global economy,” he explained, “where people can move anywhere in the world, we cannot have a top rate of tax that discourages people from living here.” As always, it is when you take these arguments from the general to the specific, that their true nature is revealed.

Osborne watched Chelsea play Manchester United on Monday. He saw John Terry, Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Eden Hazard do their stuff. The combined wages of these six players are a staggering £1,035,000 per week. These six players – on their wages alone, never mind other sources of income – were handed a tax break of roughly £2.5m next year by the very Chancellor applauding them vacuously. That is roughly 110 teachers; it is roughly 120 nurses; it is roughly 15,000 “spare bedroom subsidies”.

And such premiership royalty are in very good company. While the Chancellor waffled on about how “we are all in this together”, it was announced that the Queen was receiving a 16 per cent boost to her Government grant. Not to sound unpatriotic, but being “in this together” would seem to imply we all have to make sacrifices. It is utterly obscene, at a time of economic stagnation during which the state is imposing untold misery on millions of those who can least afford it, for the person at the very top of the pile to be getting a £5m raise.

That is roughly 220 teachers; it is roughly 240 nurses; it is roughly 30,000 “spare bedroom subsidies” in exchange for the extra reward given to the council tenant with the most spare bedrooms in the country.

It seems, every one of my pennies matters; but not theirs. We’re in it, all right. Just not together.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt