So, Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could live on £53 a week

That's just half the cost of his bluetooth headset.

The Telegraph's Rowena Mason reports:

Iain Duncan Smith has claimed he could live on £53 per week - the amount given to some benefit claimants. The Work and Pensions Secretary said he could survive on £7.57 per day if he "had to", as he defended a raft of cuts to welfare payments coming into force today.

He'd have to cut back a bit if he did so. According to his parliamentary expenses, he spent £110 - two week's worth of benefits - on a Bose bluetooth headset for his car, and another £12.42 on a USB cable (I mean, come on, who spends more than a fiver on a USB cable?). His monthly phone bill has been over £53 every month in the latest financial year, so that's another week each month he can't eat, travel, heat his house or, really do anything. And given he can claim for travel, he may have forgotten that that £5.30 he spent on taking one tube trip within his constituency also comes out of the £53. Just ten of them and he'd go hungry.

But the bigger point is that it's easy for someone like Iain Duncan Smith - or me, or, most likely, you, New Statesman reader - to showboat about living on £53 for a week. Just shift some social events around, cut out meat and booze for a while, be more aggressive about using up left-overs, and you've pretty much done it. You can watch TV instead of going out, and lentils get boring after a while, but a little turmeric makes them interesting enough to eat for a bit.

But when the next week comes round; and the next; and the next; and still £53 is all you have to live on, it gets harder. Do you give up social events entirely? What happens when your TV license runs out? You may have some books lying around the house now, but you'll finish them soon enough. And cooking cheap tasty food is easy when you have store-cupboard essentials; it gets harder when you not only have to factor in the cost of them, but also the cost of the electricity you use to cook. That's not even beginning to examine whether Iain Duncan Smith would be eligible for Housing Benefit in his hypothetical example, or if he'd still be able to happily live rent-free in a £2m house. It seems doubtful that he'd move out to fulfil the example.

The fact is, if you've never had to live on that little, it's hard to imagine what it's like. The realities of being poor are vastly different to the cheery version the rich put themselves through for charity, or to prove a point, and it's easy to guess which IDS is imagining.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser