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17 July 2000

Madonna, Prince William and Blair want to show us their real selves — but they don’t want to live like real people

By Lauren Booth

So farewell then, spin-doctors. If recent reports are to be believed, Alastair Campbell will be quietly moving his paperclips and torture equipment from Downing Street this autumn and, any day now, Peter Mandelson will be told to keep quiet on matters that don’t directly concern his ministry.

The days of the special adviser, rottweiler and lucky charm may be numbered, say gleeful backbenchers. The death of the media doc can only happen if the politicians and stars reliant on them have the confidence to try something different, a gung-ho, go-it-alone approach to PR. The PM’s recent effort at writing his own script may have knocked the wind from his sails temporarily, but there is a trend well suited to his “Call me Tone” tone, which he and other stars have been leaning towards for some time: the “Real Me” experience.

Like Mike Yarwood at the end of his Christmas specials, the celeb removes the layers of wealth, confidence and expertise to reveal a cute little guy or gal that, hey, just wants to be our pal. Since June, we’ve witnessed a glut of politicians, superstars and royal kids queuing around the publicity block to be photographed as the “Real Me” – gushing emotions all over the place and carrying out dull chores in public.

In the past month alone, we have been moved by Madonna (washing her own car), wowed by Prince William (cooking pasta) and have pitied the PM (looking exhausted and confused at work). Lord Levy has joined in the fun as well, but with less success. Unfortunately for Levy, his efforts at being “one of the chaps” by paying the same amount of tax as John the refuse collector are proving a pretension too far. His call for the public to appreciate his various selfless acts of “charity” will also fall flat, considering that he was (until March this year) a part-owner of a firm that specialises in tax avoidance advice – not exactly a right-on or down-to-earth business. So come back Campbell, all is forgiven.

Anyway, how dare he pretend that he and I are in the same situation? I (unlike rich entrepreneurs stuffing it away) really am the victim of an over-zealous witch-hunt by the Inland Revenue. HM tax inspectors are sending me charming letters on a weekly basis. My guess is that Lord Levy’s letters are all coolly, politely functional; mine, however, are downright evil. They contain such endearing phrases as “pay it now” and the promise that failure to do so will result in “your possessions [being] seized and later sold at auction”.

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Have I committed a huge tax faux pas on a Lester Piggott scale? Do I own a mansion that I’ve forgotten about? Hardly. It seems that certain expenses relating to the work you do are accepted as genuine only on a random basis. In other words, luck seems to be the largest factor, an investigation being the end of that luck. Over the past three months, my accountant has tried every (legal) argument for supporting my claim.

Sadly, nothing will work, thanks to a ludicrous legal precedent from the 1990s – one that is so ridiculous I must share it. A barrister sought to claim money back from the tax office for her clothing expenses – namely, for her collection of white wigs and black gowns. The judge, however, disagreed. When the case went to court, he ruled that the garments served a “dual purpose” and could therefore not be counted as work costs. After all, he reasoned, not only could they be used when representing clients in court, but they could also provide “warmth” and “cover” from the rain as she travelled between chambers. Her face when the judge passed the ruling must have been a picture.

Before the rich and fatuous take the plunge, “get real”, and dispose of the Alastair Campbells and Max Cliffords once and for all, perhaps they’d better consider the backlash of resentment that pretending to be “normal” brings. Yes, it’s very nice that the Queen has frozen her pay in order to raise her profile, but with a £30m surplus to get through, we all know she’ll manage. As for ministers, their cars, fuel and drivers are all well covered by expense accounts, while, for many city dwellers, simply keeping a car on the road is becoming difficult.

This is certainly the case in Camden, where I got a parking ticket recently. Nothing unusual about that, but this ticket was put on my screen as I visited a friend on the council estate where she lives. Until this year, there were six free spaces per block allocated to the residents so that they could keep an eye on their own (and visitors’) cars – particularly overnight, when it’s common for them to go missing from the nearby road or to suffer vandalism.

Now, however, these council residents are subject to parking permit charges of over £100 per year, the same amount paid by a Hampstead resident with a multimillion-pound property. When I asked my friend how she copes with the extra charge (she is pregnant and has a five-year-old son), she gave an answer that would have Jack “I’m just a normal dad” Straw shuddering in his jackboots:”I’ve been forced on to the black economy,” she told me sadly. “I’ve had to stop declaring my earnings just to pay for petrol and parking costs. The guy with MS opposite me has started dealing again for the same reason.” Dealing drugs to pay the council. Funny, if it weren’t real.

In future, Madonna and her ilk should heed Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics before playing at “normal” life and demanding attention for their mundane emotions.

Jarvis famously asked: “Are you sure you want to live like common people?” As one sad, well-to-do parent learnt when the police brought his son home, the answer is, almost certainly, no bloody thanks.