GEORGE Osborne had hitherto never seemed a burger-and-chips sort of chap, but there it was on Twitter, a picture of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the night before he lopped £11.5bn off spending, with a fast food meal in front of him.
Doubtless many would sympathise. There you are, enduring a long shift, lots more to do, why not have some quick, tasty, cheap chow. Good to see that be you a Chancellor or a cleaner, we are all in the comfort food-eating business together.
As with many things about Mr Osborne, things were not as they at first seemed. Chase all thoughts from your mind that a Treasury minion had been dispatched to the nearest McDonald's, or a greasy van parked off Trafalgar Square. No, this was a posh burger, costing no less than £9.70, from a trendy outfit which boasts that its products are made from "good Scottish beef". (One hopes the First Minister, Alex Salmond, will find time to drop Mr Osborne a line to thank him for supporting the Scottish farming industry.)
It was not quite a John Gummer burger moment, but it fair made the old tummy churn nonetheless. The most nakedly political Tory Chancellor since Nigel Lawson was once again preparing the ground for the General Election of 2015. From pictures of him scoffing burgers – he's a millionaire, but he's just like you and me, really – to delivering a public spending review that brought him all the "war on scroungers" headlines his heart could desire, Mr Osborne is putting together a menu he hopes will be irresistible to voters who, try as they might, still can't stomach the prospect of Labour when it comes to the management of the economy.
Assisting him in this endeavour, the genial Jamie Oliver to his Michel Roux, is one Danny Alexander, the Treasury Minister. Mr Alexander was yesterday specialising in desserts, serving up £100bn of infrastructure spending. There was a catch, though: the road repairs and new homes won't arrive on the table till 2015-16, with the rest coming along in 2016-20. We won't get anything, of course, unless we eat our sprouts and re-elect the Coalition Government, which amounts to the same thing.
Before even beginning to ponder whether the electorate is prepared to be bribed with its own money in this way, it is worth considering the tactics being employed by the Coalition as the 2015 poll approaches, the starting gun on which was fired on Wednesday as surely as if the Prime Minister had rolled a cannon on to the roof of Downing Street.
For all the apparent pain that the Coalition has doled out on public spending, its actions have not resulted in game-changing gains to the public purse. Total Government expenditure in 2015-16 will be £745bn. It has fallen in real terms since the Coalition took office in 2010, but only marginally. The national debt, meanwhile, is up, up and away above the trillion mark. Excluding bank bailouts, net debt has risen from 57.1% of GDP in 2009/10 to 75.4% in 2012/13. If the UK was an indebted punter, the boys with knuckledusters would have been sent round years ago.
Yet since the Coalition began governing every budget has been presented as an emergency dash to the rescue of Britain's ruined finances. Three years on, we are told by Mr Osborne that the patient is now out of intensive care. Carry on at this rate and the poor devil will be back on his feet by the time William and Kate's baby is strolling towards university.
To say the Chancellor's austerity programme has been about as effective as Vladimir Putin's charm coach is the clear winner of the 2013 understatement of the year competition. But that is not to say the cuts have been insignificant and do not hurt. It is simply that they have hurt those the mainstream political establishment at Westminster no longer care as much about as they once professed to do. Yesterday's welfare scrounger has become today's public sector worker parasite, bleeding the nation's finances dry with their demands for automatic annual pay rises. Pensioners who once provided an example to society by working and saving all their lives are now to be made into an example. For now it's the winter fuel allowance being cut for those living in warmer climes; in time, once the declared cap on welfare kicks in, all bets on pensioner benefits (bar the state pension) are off. Disabled people; benefits claimants who don't cut the mustard in English; people flagrantly in possession of an extra bedroom they are deemed not to need – all of them are the new villains of noughties Britain in the eyes of the Coalition Government.
While Labour professes to be horrified at these attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable it won't commit to doing anything about them. Even before he had heard what the Chancellor had to say on Wednesday, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, declared he would not be reversing any of it. "When George Osborne stands up next week and announces his cuts in day-to-day spending," said Mr Miliband on Saturday, "we won't be able to promise now to reverse them because we've got to be absolutely crystal clear about where the money is coming from.".Just as well Mr Osborne did not do anything truly drastic, then.
Labour is not even prepared to sweat the smaller stuff. Asked if Labour would scrap the plan to impose a seven-day wait between someone losing their job and being able to claim benefits, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, said if the move was a sensible reform that saved money he would support it; but if it turned out to be Christmas Day for loan companies he would not. Well, Mr Balls, what are the chances it will lead to more desperate, anxious people falling into the clutches of loan companies? Why does a Labour Shadow Chancellor even need to ponder this?
There were suggestions yesterday that the Scottish Government would not follow suit when it came to the public sector pay reforms, but this depended, said a source, on "the numbers". And so the game of chicken continues: who would cut this, who would not cut that, who are the public-spending assets and liabilities.
For those in political circles, this talk of cuts must be an awfully jolly parlour game, like charades for wonks. One only wishes that they had an inkling what it feels like to be on the other end of this game, to know that entire ranks of the powerful and privileged are lining up against you for no greater purpose – debt is going up, remember – than to keep up appearances and keep their backsides on the seats of ministerial limos or, in the case of Messrs Balls and Miliband, return them there. Like the remains of a burger dinner on a Sunday morning pavement, it's enough to make a body green around the gills.
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