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George Osborne’s cunning plan: how the chancellor's austerity narrative has harmed recovery

The Tories claim austerity saved the country from disaster. But Osborne's neoliberal right economics drew on discredited theories - and ultimately scuppered growth.

© Jonathan McHugh

Over their five years in power, the Conservatives have claimed their austerity policy saved the country from disaster. This purported economic competence sits at the heart of their election campaign. It needs critical scrutiny.

The coalition government has given two main reasons why austerity – cutting the Budget deficit – was necessary. The first is that its predecessor Labour government, living “beyond its means”, left the nation with a rising mountain of public debt. The only way to restore fiscal probity was to start austerity as soon as possible.

The second reason was that commitment to austerity was the only way to reassure the bond markets that the British government would not “go the way of Greece”: that is, default on its debts. Both arguments were false but they have never been properly exposed in the media; and for various reasons Labour has not attacked them with the vigour they deserve.

In economic logic, the two reasons are independent of each other. How much a government needs to borrow should be determined by the state of the economy, not by how much debt its predecessor has left it. In a slump, a government should aim to increase its deficit, not reduce it, to compensate for the fall in private-sector spending. This will normally cause the economy to grow faster than the deficit and in turn reduce the deficit, and eventually the national debt, as a share of national income. But to understand this, you need to understand that a slump is defined by the existence of spare capacity: spare because the private sector is unwilling to create the jobs to use it. Instead of borrowing to keep people in idleness, the government should borrow to create jobs. Yet this common sense was seemingly no longer the common understanding.

Linking Labour overspending with the risk of “going the way of Greece” offered the Conservatives an alternative narrative of undoubted persuasive power. Had the Labour government not left so much debt, the Conservatives said, there would have been less need for austerity to reassure bondholders. George Osborne had to be so austere because Gordon Brown had been so profligate.

This message resonated politically. The collapse of the economy in 2008 took place on Labour’s watch. So it was easy to blame Labour for it. Labour felt unable to defend its record; so the Conservative narrative became the accepted one among the punditry. However, it is far from clear that voters bought this story at the time. Labour only narrowly lost the 2010 election; most political analysts believe that Brown’s lacklustre leadership cost the party between 20 and 30 seats. So, defending Labour’s record was not a hopeless task politically. But the Labour opposition soon gave up the attempt to do so, leaving the telling of Labour’s story to the Conservatives.

In the interests of truth, we need to ask two questions. How profligate or extravagant had Labour been? And how real was the threat of a bondholder strike?

The myth of Labour profligacy

The answer to the first question can be divided into two parts: Labour’s economic record before 2008 and its record in the post-crash years 2008 to 2010.

The Labour government had committed itself to Gordon Brown’s famous fiscal rules. In its draft election manifesto of 1996, it promised to “enforce the ‘golden rule’ of public spending – over the economic cycle, we will only borrow to invest and not to fund current expenditure”. This pledge was buttressed by the “sustainable investment rule”: over the cycle, the government would hold net public debt to below 40 per cent of GDP. Significantly, Brown’s tight spending plans of 1997-98 were set against “Conservative mismanagement of the public finances” – which only goes to show that, following a change of government, the incoming government always blames its predecessor for the fiscal mess it inherits.

A detailed, and far from uncritical, analysis of Labour’s fiscal record by Malcolm Sawyer of Leeds University, dating from 2007, found that between 1997-98 and 2005-2006 Brown, as chancellor, “nearly met” his fiscal targets. The current account deficit was close to zero over the period and the national debt stayed under 40 per cent of GDP. Sawyer put this record “close to achievement of the golden rule” partly down to good luck – surpluses generated by the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, reduction in world nominal interest rates – but partly to tricky (“creative”, in the jargon) accounting. The use of the private finance initiative (PFI) to fund the building of schools and hospitals “off budget” lowered the deficit in “real time” at the cost of raising it in the future. Had this investment programme been financed by conventional borrowing, the net debt-to-GDP ratio would have been closer to 50 per cent, rather than the recorded 33.6 per cent.

Second, the Brown Treasury kept redating the “economic cycle” (a fuzzy concept at best) to make its fiscal rules easier to meet. The main effect of this redating was to postpone the achievement of the zero balance on public investment needed to meet the sustainable investment rule. It was for these reasons that in 2005 the OECD noted that Britain’s fiscal policy “required attention”.

By 2007 the Treasury admitted that it was time to slow down the public-sector growth engine. Its Comprehensive Spending Review of February 2007 cut projected public spending from 4 per cent a year to 2.1 per cent a year over the following three years, less than the expected growth of the economy, which was itself expected to be lower than in the previous boom years. This would yield a current account surplus of 0.3 per cent and cap the national debt at 39.8 per cent by 2010-11. However, Brown’s luck finally ran out: instead of slipping gently into a new economic cycle, the economy fell into a deep hole. Economic growth did not slow down – it collapsed.

To summarise: in its first ten years Labour may have fiddled the books a bit, as all governments do, but it had certainly not created a mess. And it had built lots of hospitals and schools. The more honest charge is that New Labour overestimated the revenue flows it would go on receiving from a flaky financial services sector, whose largely unregulated expansion it had encouraged, and whose inherent instability it had ignored. But this is a judgement after the event. Most academic economists ignored the possibility of a financial crash. Nor did the Conservative opposition think the government’s finances were messed up in 2007. In September of that year, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, confirmed that he would match Brown’s spending plans and that, “under a Conservative government, there will be real increases in spending on public services, year after year”.

The mess, if that is what it was, came in the two big slump years, 2008 and 2009. Owing to the collapse of its revenues and the additional spending on social security, public-sector net borrowing shot up from 2.7 per cent to 10.2 per cent of GDP. The cost  of bailing out banks added to a national debt that ballooned from 43.6 per cent of GDP pre-crash to 76.4 per cent by 2010.

In short, the big holes in the public finances inherited by the coalition when it took office were the result not of misguided splurging, but of the sudden emergence of deep craters in the British and world economy. This is confirmed by a 2011 IMF report, which calculated that of the 37 per cent increase in UK public debt from 2007-2011, 25 per cent was due to loss of revenues, 7 per cent to support of the financial sector and only about 2 per cent to fiscal stimulus. Furthermore, it’s true that the rise in the deficit was somewhat higher than the OECD average, but this was because British governments were more dependent on revenues from the financial services sector.

The Conservative charge of Labour profligacy boils down to the claim that Labour did not start cutting spending immediately it saw its revenues falling. But Conservative spokesmen have never honestly faced up to the question: what would have happened if the government had started cutting its spending with the economy in a tailspin?

Labour did what any sane and civilised government would have done in the circumstances (and which all other governments did): continue to support the economy as best it could to limit the damage caused by the collapse in private spending.

The Greek excuse

Enter the coalition and George Osborne. The British economic collapse bottomed out at the end of 2009 and the economy started growing modestly. Then came the Greek sovereign debt crisis and the switch to austerity. Osborne made the link explicit when he declared in his “emergency” Budget of June 2010 “you can see in Greece an example of a country that didn’t face up to its problems, and that is the fate that I want to avoid”. That austerity was the only way to avoid a British sovereign debt crisis remains the official defence of austerity to this day. As the Treasury minister Paul Deighton told the House of Lords only last month, “the markets would not have allowed us to continue with the scale of deficit we had”.

But Britain was not like Greece or any other country in the eurozone. Locked into a system of nation-state debt issuers without currency-creating powers, Greece and other eurozone debtors faced a dire choice between austerity and default. But with its own currency and its own “lender of last resort” central bank to backstop its bond issues, Britain had an extra margin of freedom (secured, ironically, by the Labour government when it decided not to join the single currency) to conduct a macroeconomic policy suited to the condition of its economy. Fiscal policy was not disabled by the bond markets as in the eurozone; there was no need for “an accelerated plan” to reduce the deficit. What did happen was that Osborne’s alarmist anti-Labour rhetoric talked influential commentators who should have known better into believing that Britain was on the road to deficit-fuelled ruin.

 

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So, why did Osborne do it? Historians will debate his motives but I believe that this intensely political Chancellor saw in a manufactured crisis of confidence a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cut the size of the state. The view, long held by the neoliberal right, that state spending steals resources from the productive economy, was repackaged for the purposes of austerity as the doctrine that government spending was “crowding out” more efficient private-sector spending and therefore damaging recovery: a restatement of the Treasury view of the 1920s, which Keynes exploded with a common-sense argument – in a slump, increased government spending does not take resources from the private sector: it brings into use resources that are idle.

From his theoretical ragbag, Osborne constructed a consummate political narrative that linked folklore economics (“the government can’t spend money it hasn’t got”) to the politics of blame (“cleaning up the mess left by Labour”) to the politics of fear (“the Greek bogey”) to grand economic strategy (“reducing the deficit is a necessary condition for sustained recovery”).

There is no doubt that, aside from his basic instincts, Osborne received some very bad economic advice. “Unless we deal with debts there will be no growth,” he declared in June 2010. This echoed the briefly fashionable views of two American economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who claimed that if the ratio of public debt to GDP rose above 90 per cent, growth would go into reverse. Their headline finding was quickly discredited but Osborne said that they were the economists who most influenced him.

Another argument briefly called into use in 2010 was the theory of “expansionary fiscal consolidation”. The theory was that the boost to business confidence given by cutting welfare benefits would more than offset their contractionary effects on demand. Indeed, its main advocate, Alberto Alesina of Bocconi University in Milan, assured European finance ministers at a meeting in Madrid in April 2010 that not only would a “credible policy of fiscal consolidation” boost growth but it would do so quickly.

The failure of the “Alesina effect” to materialise in those European countries that were unwise enough to try out his remedies should have discredited austerity as a recovery policy. For nearly three years following Osborne’s 2010 deficit-cutting Budget, the British economy stagnated. The Chancellor forecast an average GDP growth of 2.7 per cent between 2011 and 2013. Actual growth in the period was 1.3 per cent. Austerity’s supporters blame the stagnation on “headwinds” – the continuing eurozone crisis, higher oil prices – but the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the watchdog that Osborne himself set up to monitor his performance, disagrees. Austerity, it says, reduced GDP growth by 1 per cent in 2010-11 and a further 1 per cent in 2011-12.

Extrapolating these OBR figures puts the cumulative cost of austerity since 2010 at 5 per cent of GDP. Some leading economists, including Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University, consider 10-15 per cent a more realistic figure. That means between 5 and 15 per cent of British output has been permanently lost. The lowest estimate, 5 per cent, indicates £100bn, or £1,500 for every citizen. The truth is that austerity stopped the recovery in 2010 and caused the economy and society unnecessary damage.

Growth’s failure to materialise dished the Chancellor’s five-year timetable for cutting borrowing. With government revenues failing to recover, Osborne quietly slowed down the speed of his cuts, eventually declaring that a further £35bn of consolidation would be needed in the next parliament. The Bank of England injected a further £175bn into the economy between October 2011 and July 2012. In 2012, the government started subsidising bank lending for mortgages through its “Help to Buy” scheme. The shaky recovery that the easing of austerity brought about in 2013 made possible the Chancellor’s rhetorical masterstroke: we are growing faster than any country in Europe. This shows austerity works!

 

Labour’s weakness

Conservative rhetoric has left Labour floundering. The Conservatives have been able to take the narrative of the crisis away from Labour and turn their disastrous economic stewardship to political advantage. Their surprising weakness in the polls suggests their story is not entirely believed. This may yet enable Labour to form a minority government. Osborne does not deserve another go. He has done his best and worst.

Could Labour have done better? Its first, and probably decisive failure, was in mounting a convincing defence of its own record. Yet there was much to be proud of and particularly in the crisis years of 2008-2010 – the very years in which, according to the Conservatives, they messed up the public finances. In fact, the Labour government’s decent and principled reluctance to cut public spending in the crisis years was what kept the economy going; to which must be added Gordon Brown’s exceptional leadership in co-ordinating the global recovery effort in 2009. But the chance to establish this as the story of the crisis was missed; and after the electorate had given its verdict in 2010, it could not be resurrected politically.

Once Osborne had put his strategy for recovery into place, it would have required not only exceptional rhetorical skill to have countered it, but economic understanding of a high order. The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, a professional economist, has shown how important it is to have at least one political leader who combines rhetorical power with a solid knowledge of macroeconomics. For Varoufakis has the knowledge and confidence to confront the banalities that pass for economic wisdom in the temples of power and finance. Has anyone in these august places, one wonders, heard of the paradox of thrift? But no one in the post-2010 Labour leadership could have done that job except the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and his inability or unwillingness to make a decisive attack weakened Labour’s intellectual firepower and in effect let Osborne get away with it. It is pretty scandalous that it is left to the SNP to make the case Labour should have been making.

The opposition to austerity was also weakened by a factor outside Labour’s control, namely the rapid reassertion of macroeconomic orthodoxy in treasuries, central banks, international organisations such as the IMF and much economic journalism, following their brief flirtation with Keynesianism in 2008-2009. Why, after the economies of the world had fallen into a hole, did these people start turning their guns on the governments that had rescued their economies from another Great Depression? That is something historians and political analysts will have to puzzle out.

One baleful consequence of the return to orthodoxy was that the statistical basis for policymaking was consistently slanted in the wrong direction. There was a systematic underestimate of spare capacity in the period 2010-11 and a systematic overoptimism about growth prospects.

Keynes said: “When statistics do not make sense, I find it generally wiser to prefer sense to statistics.” Common sense should have told policymakers that the financial system and economy had been deeply damaged by the crash of 2008 and needed a very strong stimulus from government to avoid years of waste and stagnation. Prudence should now tell policymakers that the promise to cut the welfare state to the bone will not only inflict further economic damage but cause social resentment on a scale not seen since the 1980s.

Little of this common sense of the matter has emerged so far in the general election. The Conservatives have spun their familiar yarn of rescuing Britain from “Labour’s Great Recession”, restoring “confidence” by borrowing less, pledging to start “paying down debt”. Labour has mostly tried to be plus royaliste que le roi: it will “cut the deficit” every year; it will impose a “Budget Responsibility Lock” to stop governments fiddling the accounts. More promisingly, it will set up a “British Investment Bank” but has said nothing about its funding or powers. Perhaps the voters will see through Labour’s disordered head to its humane heart. But with so little to choose between the big parties on the main issue of the day, it is not surprising that the election remains too close to call.

Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and a leading biographer of J M Keynes. His most recent book is “Britain Since 1900: a Success Story?” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Clockwise from top left: Moonlight, Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water
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The hand that feeds: how food scenes became the home of intimacy, sex and power in film

While food in general has been a big part of film over the past two years, it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

When was the last time somebody fed you? Not the last time your friend invited you round for dinner, or your partner cooked something delicious and romantic that you ate together. Not the last time you went to a nice restaurant and your date scooped a forkful of their meal into your mouth. When was the last time someone lived to serve your appetite, and your appetite alone?

Being fed is something that happens to people in an infantilised state. It suggests vulnerability. In this way, it is deeply, sometimes overly, intimate. When one person is eating and another isn’t – particularly in a sit-down, food-focused setting – traditional social dynamics become imbalanced, like being stark naked next to someone fully clothed, or a singer performing for an audience of one. As such, being fed can sit on a knife-edge of power dynamics: sometimes maternally nourishing, sometimes romantically intimate, sometimes exposing and uncomfortable. As a visual expression of the complexities of relationships, and with our need for food so often functioning as a metaphor for emotional needs and sexual desire, feeding scenes are particularly cinematic.

In fact, they are some of cinema’s most memorable: from Snow White accepting the evil witch’s apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the much-parodied food-as-foreplay sequence in 9 Weeks. I think of the sandwiches eaten early on in Psycho. When Marion arrives at the Bates Hotel, Norman Bates asks her, “Will you have supper here?” relaxing her by insisting “I was just about to, myself…” But once the sandwiches are prepared, Bates doesn’t eat. “It’s all for you. I’m not hungry. Please go ahead,” he insists. Marion, forced to eat alone, nibbles uncomfortably, and Bates watches closely. “You eat like a bird”, he says, comparing her to the stuffed birds dotted all around the room. It’s our first hint – along with his off-screen mother’s disembodied ranting about Mary “appeasing her ugly appetite with my food – and my son!” – that something is deeply wrong, as the proper dynamics of a meal are disturbed, and food openly discussed as a sexual metaphor.

While food in general has been a big part of film and film discussions over the past couple of years – from teenage girls snacking on un-consecrated wafers in Lady Bird to Get Out’s fruit loops and milk eaten (crucially, psychopathically) separately – it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

Perhaps no recent film privileges the role of food in relationships as highly as Moonlight (2016), which follows the coming-of-age of a gay black boy in Miami, Florida. “When it comes to food and film, its Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight that paints food, and feeding, the most vibrantly,” Ruby Tandoh writes in her book Eat Up, in a section on the ways in which food functions as a language of caring. “The food is rich and exquisite and larger than life, but it’s not really the contents of the plate that counts. What matters, in each of these scenes, is that the meal sits there on the table between Chiron and the people who love him – a symbol of the most nurturing kind of love.” Moonlight explores the growing up of Chiron, in three acts (child, teenager and adult), and each of these acts contains at least one key scene in which Chiron is fed.

In an early scene, young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is sat in a plasticy diner in front of Juan, a stranger who has taken it upon himself to look after neglected Chiron. Juan sits casually, a milkshake in hand, but with no food for himself, while Chiron eats his fries with a fork, quickly and silently.

“You not gonna tell me what your name is?” Juan says. When Chiron makes no attempt to reply, Juan pulls the tray out of his reach. Chrion looks down and shuffles back into his seat, still sulkily silent. Juan laughs. “Oh, man, you know I wouldn’t do you like that. Anyway, I apologize, alright? I’m just trying to get you to say something.”

After a short car ride, we are at home with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa. Juan and Teresa have no plates before them, but are both watching Chiron silently make his way through a plate of chicken. “You don’t talk much but you damn sure can eat,” Juan laughs. “That’s alright, baby. You ain’t got to talk till you get good and ready,” says Teresa. Finally, he speaks. “My name’s Chiron.” Even at this early stage in the film, the relationship between emotional and physical nourishment is clear, as food seen as a gateway to trust and familiarity.

When Chiron is older, he still relies on Teresa for this nourishment. In the film’s second act, Theresa tries to joke with a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as he eats (again, she herself does not), but Chiron, anxious and sullen, doesn’t bite, instead looking down at his plate. Theresa gently, lovingly insists he sit up and speak. “Stop putting your head down in my house. You know my rule, it’s all love and all pride in this house. You feel me? I can’t hear you. Do you feel me?”

These dynamics reappear in Chiron’s romantic relationship as a grown man. Now muscular and masculine but still shy and reserved, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) meets up with Kevin (André Holland), the object of his childhood affections, in the diner he runs. This diner scene, for many the iconic image of the film, is stretched out until it twitches with sexual tension, full of long silences and extended eye contact, running at an almost painfully long fifteen minutes. “You ain’t changed one damn bit,” Kevin observes. “You still can’t say more than three words at a time, huh?” Without missing a beat, Chiron speaks. “You said you was gonna cook for me. I know how to say that.”

We watch Kevin prepare the chef’s special with skill and care. Kevin brings it over to Chiron in a window booth, insists they share a bottle of wine, and attentively watches him eat his meal. When Chiron drops a bit on the table, and eats it with his fingers, popping it in his mouth, Kevin laughs. “I saw that, I saw that!” When Chiron is reluctant to share more personal details of his life, Kevin refuses to let it slide. “I’ve been back there in that kitchen, man, and cooked for your ass and everything. Hey, these grandma’s rules, man. You know the deal: your ass eat, your ass speak.”

Kevin’s joking about “grandma’s rules” points towards the larger significance of Moonlight’s meals: food is the tool that allows Kevin, Theresa, and Juan to enter Chiron’s life intimately, in both parental and romantic roles. For someone like Chiron – lonely, neglected, whose appetites and needs don’t take centre stage in his own childhood home – meals like this become the times where he is most vulnerable, and most open to love.

Parallels have been drawn between Moonlight and Sean Baker’s exploration of impoverished childhood The Florida Project (2017), even by Barry Jenkins himself. Moonee, The Florida Project’s central character, is, like Chiron, the child of a single mother in desperate circumstances (they live in a $38 a night motel called The Magic Castle, near Florida’s Disney World). But Moonee’s mother Halley is more caring, and present, and is at her most nurturing when feeding her child.

In one scene, we watch from Halley’s perspective as Moonee eats her weight in food at an all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast buffet Halley has sneaked them into. Moonee wolfs down bacon and fruit and pastries, and drinks a huge glass of orange juice in a single gulp. She is thrilled: “I wish I had a bigger stomach – like I was pregnant! I could fit food in there... We’ve gotta come here again. This is the life man! Better than a cruise!” The whole scene is a performance: Halley pretends to be a normal hotel guest on holiday with her child, Moonee in turn plays up her enjoyment for her mother. But it’s a performance that allows Halley and Moonee to have a loving, normal mother-daughter relationship, even if it’s short-lived. Halley simply watches her overexcited daughter quietly, smiling beatifically. As her daughter is at her most effusive and childlike, delighting in life’s simple pleasures, Halley is at her most maternal.

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016) can also be compared to Moonlight: here is a colder imagining of queer love in a diner. Lonely, isolated Montanan ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls for a young lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart) when she accidentally walks into her law class. After class, Jamie offers to take Beth to a diner. Over three scenes in that diner, Reichardt explores Jamie’s unreciprocated interest in Beth: in each, Beth eats while Jamie watches eagerly, ordering no food for herself.

In the first, Beth eats a sad-looking burger and complains about the long journey ahead of her. In the second, she eats a bowl of soup, while Jamie, again, only watches. Beth asks Jamie, businesslike, “Do you happen to know anyone in town who could teach my class?” Jamie chuckles sheepishly and says, “I don’t know anyone at all.” It’s overly intimate – Jamie wants Beth to ask about her loneliness. Her soft smile is the one of someone being examined by a new lover. Beth looks at her soup and asks Jamie vaguely about her job working with horses. Jamie responds with childhood anecdotes about her and her brothers sneaking out at night to ride wild horses, smiling that same embarrassed smile.

The third and final time the two arrive at the diner, it’s on horseback. Emboldened by the mere mention of her horses in their last conversation, when Beth agrees to share a ride to the diner, Jamie surprises her by bringing out her horse. The two ride the horse in silence. In the diner, biting into a grilled cheese, Beth offers Jamie some of her fries. Jamie, as ever, declines to eat, but stares unbreakingly at Beth, asking her a question that picks up on the last throwaway comment Beth made the last time they were at the diner: clearly, she’s been running that conversation over in her mind, thinking of something to ask her. It’s painful to watch such undivided, unreciprocated attentions, and Jamie’s misreading of the scene leads to an awkward declaration of feeling later in the film.

7,000 miles away, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) too explores queer desire in an isolated, rural setting. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a closeted Yorkshire farm worker with a drinking problem, used to denying himself life’s pleasures. The arrival of stunningly handsome Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) catches Johnny off-guard.

The first time they eat together, Johnny tears into a pot of instant noodles without putting a flavour packet in; Gheorghe empties his packet into his noodles quietly and slowly. They are silent and avoid eye contact. The second time, it’s early, the morning after their first sexual encounter. Gheorghe watches silently as Johnny forks noodles into his mouth. “What?” he asks, uncomfortable. “I’m starving, me.” The third time, after watching Gheorghe begin to pour his flavour packet into his noodles, Johnny holds his own cup towards him. Gheorghe shares his packet. Again, Gheorghe watches Johnny eat. Eventually Johnny is too uncomfortable under his gaze, and finishes his noodles inside, alone. But later, as their relationship develops, we see Gheorghe cook for Johnny, even tasting it and salting his food for him, and they begin to actually enjoy food together.

Shared pleasure in food as a form of romance pops up again In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), set in rural Italy in 1983. Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) fall in love around the breakfast table, amongst fragrant peach trees. During their first breakfast together, Oliver begins by helping himself to an egg. He taps it with his teaspoon so violently he smashes the whole egg into a runny mess of yolk and bits of shell. The maid takes it away, he takes a second, and breaks into it with a little more restraint. Elio is eating a peach, chewing on it as his parents and Oliver chat about the fruit trees. Oliver begins hurriedly eating his egg, making appreciative noises, dripping liquid yolk all over the table, and is soon offered another. “No, no, no I know myself too well – if I have a second I’m just gonna have a third, and then a fourth, and you’re just gonna have to roll me out of here. Delicious.” Elio pauses from his chewing to watch, intently.

The next time we see Oliver eat an egg, it’s in close-up, with ridiculous squelching noises. Though Guadagnino has insisted there is nothing sexual about this moment, only Epicurean, (even insisting in his defence “We didn’t do a close-up of that”, but I beg to differ – see above), the dialogue during the scene at least links Oliver’s egg eating to sex. “We almost had sex last night,” Elio says to his father, while Oliver eats. Then adds, “Marcia and me.” Of course, it is peaches that are the film’s most sexualised food. And, as Dan Q Dao writes in Munchies, the original novel contains an even more explicit version of the scene, as Oliver eats a peach Elio has had sex with, while Elio watches.

Call Me By Your Name is not the only film this year offering audiences a sexy egg. Eggs are more deliberately sexualised in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), set in Baltimore in 1962. Every morning, cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) masturbates in the bath in the time it takes her to boil two eggs to take to work. Later, when she first meets the fish-man creature the laboratory she cleans is experimenting on, she feeds him the very same eggs – which he devours with visible pleasure. Is this human feeding animal, mother feeding child, or lover feeding lover? Eggs bond them – “egg” is the first word she teaches him in sign language, and the eggs she brings him every day soon become tokens of love, as Elisa lines them up on the edge of his tank, making eyes at him.

In the film’s most unambiguous exploration of Elisa’s feelings for the amphibian man, the two sit at opposite ends of a long table, while the creature eats an entire plate of boiled eggs. As Elisa watches him eat, she sings along with the song on the radio, and the scene melts into an old Hollywood fantasy, where Elisa swirls around a stage with the creature in her arms. We cut back to the dinner table: the creature is studiously peeling his eggs, oblivious. When Elisa feeds the amphibian man, it both brings them closer together, and serves to emphasise the gulf between them in their experiences of the world.

In all these films, the relationship between food and sex is romantic, pleasant, or at least fairly safe. But in Julia Ducournau’s French film Raw (2016), food and sex are dangerously, violently linked. During an initiation ceremony at her second day of veterinary school, vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is forced to eat raw rabbit’s kidneys.

It brings her out in a bright red rash – and sees her develop an insatiable craving for raw meat, sex, and even human flesh. Slowly but surely, Justine starts eating other people. As the film goes on, her primal, cannibalistic desire becomes indistinguishable from lust.

Food is dangerous, too, in Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled .When wounded soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) ends up at all-female boarding school in Civil War-era Virginia, his presence is an unwanted, but nevertheless thrilling. Three dinner scenes between teachers Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) with their five pupils explore the tensions he brings into the home. In the first, the women mediate on the lessons his arrival could teach them. In the second, they are joined by the Corporal himself, each of the girls taking their moment to try and impress him. They take the odd bite of their meal, but their attentions are focused on McBurney, who is forced into a performative tummy-rubbing appreciation: “This is the finest meal I can remember”.

The third comes after McBurney has threatened, at gunpoint, to murder the women. They decide to protect themselves and dispose of him by feeding him a poison version of his favourite mushroom dish. “Corporal, we’d like to let you know that we harbor no ill feelings, and made this meal in commemoration of your journey ahead,” Miss Martha insists. As the mushrooms are passed to the Corporal, none of the girls help themselves. As he piles his plate high, the girls stare on and neglect their own plates. Coppola’s stage directions repeatedly emphasise how the women keep their gazes fixed on McBurney: “All eyes are on him”; Jane, Emily and Amy “stare”; “They all watch as McBurney eats up the mushrooms”; “The girls watch him”; “The united women calmly watch”. Of course, unbeknownst to McBurney, the intensity of their undivided attention and their own refusal to eat the mushrooms is a sign that something deeply suspicious is happening.

Ultimately, any intimate act is so because it holds a level of risk, and requires an element of trust. Here, the vague danger that comes with accepting food from another person is taken to its logical conclusion. Within a few seconds of eating, McBurney lies dead on the floor.

Strangely, The Beguiled is not the only film of 2017 featuring a woman feeding a threatening man poison mushrooms to regain control. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the dining table at 1950s London dressmakers the House of Woodcock is as fraught as that of a Civil War boarding school. Phantom Thread explores the complexities of hunger and sexual desire perhaps more explicitly than any other film this year: at the New Yorker, Helen Rosner calls in “one of the great food movies in recent memory”. Difficult, self-mythologizing 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock has a complex relationship with his work, alternating between discipline and spontaneity, self-denial and self-expression. His relationship with food oscillates, too: sometimes it is one of control and deprivation, other times an ecstatic binge. When he is happy, inspired, or aroused, Woodcock eats with relish.

When he first meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), she is a waitress in a seaside café – from her, Reynolds orders an endless breakfast: “A Welsh rarebit. With a poached egg on top – not too runny. Bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam – not strawberry. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea. And some sausages.” She delivers it to him, along with a note: “To the hungry boy.” Food remains the sire of their flirtation and their battleground.

As Reynolds’ relationship with Alma develops, her relaxed approach to food enrages him. She butters her toast too loudly, slurps her cereal obscenely. She violates the sanctity of his breakfast by eating enthusiastically. “If breakfast isn’t right,” Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) explains, “it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” When Alma brings him tea in the afternoon, he balks. “No, Alma, what are you doing? Don’t put the tray on the table, please. Just take it off. I didn’t ask for tea.” When she replies that the tea is going out, he snaps, “The interruption is staying right here with me.” When Alma rejects the conventions of the household to prepare a surprise dinner for Reynolds, he makes no attempt to conceal his disdain: “As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you’ve prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.” Perhaps their worst argument ensues.

In these moments, Alma is a nuisance, or worse, a threat to the stability and order or the House of Woodcock, forever interrupting Reynolds with inconvenient reminders of troublesome human desires: food, sex, emotional intimacy. But when Woodcock is invigorated, inspired, and happy to give in to his wants, both Alma and food become much more enticing prospects. ”Do we have porridge?” he says brightly to his cook one morning. “Do we have cream? Thick cream? That’s what I’d like. Oh, Alma, would you like some porridge?”

Ultimately, Reynolds fluctuates between desiring power and control, and desiring its opposite. Understanding this, Alma is able to slowly, carefully, become the dominant party. Of course, it’s food – and feeding – that enables her to do this. The film’s final scenes shows Alma preparing a poisoned mushroom omelette for Reynolds: that will force him back into a vulnerable, infantilised, pathetic state, and put her in the position of controlling caregiver. “I want you flat on your back,” Alma whispers, “helpless, tender, open, with only me to help.” Reynolds smiles. It’s a state he desires sexually, emotionally and physically as the film’s insistent final words make unavoidably clear. “I’m getting hungry,” Reynolds says. We cut to black.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?