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27 March 2012

Political sketch: Osborne’s Pastygate

Treasury/bakery questions with the Chancellor.

By Peter McHugh

Just when Chancellor George Osborne thought he was over the worst he was finally felled by that most potent of class weapons: the Greggs pasty.
After two days in which attention had switched from his disastrously received budget to the Prime Minister’s dining companions, he must have believed that respite was in sight.

Indeed, he turned up before the Treasury Select Committee relaxed, flanked by his top officials and clutching all the crib sheets necessary for what was to be the last grilling before the Easter holidays (which in the case of MPs, starts tonight and lasts 19 days).

But all of his preparations were undone when Labour MP John Mann asked him the one question he could not have foreseen: “When was the last time you bought a pasty at Greggs?”

There has never been any love lost between George Osborne, hereditary baronet, St Paul’s School and Oxford, and John Mann, hereditary trouble maker, Bradford Grammar and Manchester. But you could see that even George was shocked by the severity of the attack contained in this apparently simple query.

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“I can’t remember the last time I bought a pasty at Greggs,” was the Chancellors reply, as behind him aides rifled through the Red Book to see if there was any other suitable answer. As the committee struggled with the vision of George entering a Greggs establishment to seek out one of their renowned steak mince and tatties specialities, Mr Mann sat back with the smug look of someone who knew he had struck a possibly mortal blow.

All week the Chancellor has been trying to defend his budget as equal for all, despite cutting the top rate of tax to 45p for the wealthy whilst making life harder for five million pensioners and those on benefits.

But even he had no defence against the class card played over the decision to put VAT on the hot pasties that keep thousands going at lunchtime in many of the less wealthy parts of the country.

Had there been a Greggs adjacent to the Treasury during the Budget deliberations, or had there been a delicacy served in the Cameron or Osborne households, then Pastygate may have been avoided.

Instead the law of unintended consequences applied and allowed Mr Mann to echo his leader Ed Miliband with the charge that, clearly, we are not all in this together.

Luckily for the Chancellor, the Select Committee numbers Tory Party deputy chairman Michael Fallon amongst its members. He has been losing weight around London this week diving from TV studio to TV studio as front man and chief apologist for the government since the Budget hit the fan. And he was there for George too, with encouragement to explain away the 45p tax rate and sort-of promise not to cut it again soon. The Chancellor practiced his answer but his heart was not in it.

It was left to another Tory, David Ruffley, to try to come to his support by asking George if he had his Budget time over again would he do the same?

The Chancellor almost smiled.

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