A bit of Kinnock at Christmas. Photo: Getty
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Christmas dinner comes early this year, with goulash, Kinnock and serious plotting

Everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz.

The last thing I remember is having an arm around Neil Kinnock, giving him some tips about how he should help Ed Miliband win the next election. I also, for what it was worth, put in a good word for the nearest thing I have to a Labour MP, Hammersmith’s very own Andy Slaughter, who has, as far as I can see – and I have been keeping an eye on him – been doing a very good job. (He’s the nearest thing I have to an MP because my children live in his constituency. The area I live in has never returned anything other than a Tory candidate, and never will.)

However, as I said, everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz. The wine was, though not entirely my fault as I will explain in a minute, rather a matter of personal indulgence, as it so often is; but the slivovitz was in the line of duty, as it was being poured for us in order to toast the hard-working staff of the Gay Hussar. And they deserved these toasts, for the restaurant was completely packed out with members of the Goulash Co-operative (look it up), formed by the likes of Martin Rowson in order to buy out and therefore save the restaurant, which will otherwise be sold and turned into a Starbucks or something equally boring.

For those who do not know the Gay Hussar (although I would imagine that this magazine’s core readership has a pretty good idea), it is a restaurant that has been going for 60-odd years, nestling in the armpit of Soho Square and Greek Street, serving an unchanging menu of Hungarian food to a clientele largely composed of Old Labour politicians. The walls are adorned with caricatures of various luminaries; the downstairs dining room alone has some 60 of these, all drawn by Martin Rowson. I suspect the idea was to pay for his meal in kind; that’s a lot of free dinners. Not that I am censorious. I was, after all, his guest; the people on his table had bowed out and Martin, asking himself the question “Whom do I know who would accept an invitation to a free lunch at almost the last possible minute?” came up with my name, for some reason.

It was, however, a happy choice. I have a fondness for Hungary and Hungarians, ever since I worked on a film in Budapest in the mid-1980s (with, let me boast, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, writing additional dialogue for him in English, a language he did not speak. The greatest gentleman Italy has ever produced, he treated me with a courtesy that few have ever treated me with since). I can count to ten in Hungarian still; I can read sentences aloud with such a good accent that few would realise I can’t understand what I’m reading; and I still have some phrases, along with a few ripe expletives that used to come in handy when the kids were young and I wanted to express frustration at some immediate outrage.

Also, my politics are as red and peppery as the restaurant’s goulash. It is telling that Tony Blair never ate there; its old-world atmosphere and menu would have repelled him and he hatched his conspiracies in more intimate surroundings. The Gay Hussar may have been a place for off-the-record conversations, but there is a kind of honesty in having a rendezvous somewhere open to the public, so that even if you’re going to be in a private room, people will have seen you and your co-plotter entering about the same time.

In short, history has been made there, and it is a sign of the end of a certain kind of politics that the restaurant is thinking of giving up.

I also blame the end of a certain kind of lunch. That is, a phenomenally alcoholic one that you don’t pay for. Publishers and agents used to do them very well; now a combination of austerity and prissiness has produced a nation that sits at its desk, dyspeptically nibbling on a Pret sandwich while worrying about being fired. This was one of the grand lunches: between me, Martin, his agent and the Moose (the other last-minute guest), we got through a lake of wine and a pondful of duck and smoked goose. And I’ll pass on the thought that – what with the bill of fare tending as it does towards the robust, and the national colours of Hungary being red, white and green, and the heavily oaked decor of the interior – the Gay Hussar is the kind of place that feels permanently Yule-ish; but in a good way. Let this not be its last year.

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 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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