With the pageantry and spectacle of the past fortnight set against a backdrop of impending destitution, it would be hard to imagine Britain could descend any further into an embarrassingly unequal hellscape. Liz Truss’s “mini-budget” on Friday was very much a “hold my beer” response, as our new prime minister ended up out-class(war)ing an event that literally revolved around a diamond-encrusted crown.
I say “mini-budget” but according to Truss it was actually a “fiscal event”, which is a Real Thing and not just something she made up in an attempt to prevent scrutiny from the Office for Budget Responsibility. Call me old-fashioned, but when the prime minister is refusing to call a budget a budget in order to hide the damage her policies could cause, the rest of us can be forgiven for getting a little worried. Rebrand a shark a labrador, and it’ll still bite your face off.
Listen to the details of this government’s plan to tackle spiralling inflation and you might say we are going to need a bigger boat. The chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s big idea was mass borrowing on the never-never and £45bn of tax cuts squarely aimed at the rich, including abolishing the top rate of tax, cutting corporation tax and reversing the national insurance hike. It means someone earning £1m will get a £55,000 tax cut – twice what a typical worker brings home a year. Giving money to people who already have it may seem a novel response to a cost of living crisis, but I’m pretty sure disabled people can just wait for the wealth to “trickle down” to their prepay meters this winter.
Indeed, no further targeted help was announced for low-income or disabled families who will be left to spend almost half of their disposable income on energy bills, but you’ll be relieved to hear bankers got help to get even richer. (We’ve all been rooting for those guys!) It’s entirely a coincidence, you’ll understand, that at the same time as the government lifted the cap on banker’s bonuses, Truss announced a plan to get benefit claimants to “seek more work”. To misquote Mastercard, forcing 120,000 people – many of whom are exhaustingly balancing part-time work with caring responsibilities – to take on more hours will have little economic impact, but finding a scapegoat for the nation’s financial woes is priceless. When you’re putting on your coat indoors this Christmas as energy bosses rake in record profits, do remember who the real villains are: scrounging unpaid carers.
As the pound crashed at one point to a record low against the dollar, Truss found time for everyone’s top priority: scrapping the proposed bans on the import of fur and foie gras. I’m not sure that when “red wall” voters were promised “post-Brexit opportunities” they imagined this would mean easier access to mink coats. Truss told reporters she is “prepared to be unpopular” with her policies, and in a way you have to respect her complete disregard for optics. As food banks prepare for unprecedented queues and parents skip meals to feed their children, even Marie Antoinette’s PR team would have drawn a line at “let them eat foie gras”.
Watch: How will mini-budget announcements affect UK households?
The Conservative party protecting the interests of the wealthy is hardly new territory, but to do it on this scale as millions of families are set to fall into poverty takes a particular commitment to acting shamelessly. This is a budget that benefited banks more than babies. Class war is traditionally a term levelled at the left – typically when arguing for radical things such as housing or food – but it is clearer than ever that it is the Tories who wage it.
Truss claims she deplores focusing on “wealth distribution” but she herself has now launched a vast transfer in wealth: it’s just that it’s all towards the rich. The thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research calculates that the wealthiest 10% of the population will receive almost half of the gains from the budget – including every cabinet member. Britain is increasingly less of a real country and more of a large-scale art installation on the vested interests of the ruling class; a Banksy, where chimpanzees are sitting in the House of Commons would actually be an improvement on the current lot.
That these particular chimps gained power without most of us getting a choice only adds to the sense of injustice. Truss has been elevated to Downing Street effectively by 81,000 retired southerners, making her mandate about as democratic as King Charles’s. Former Labour heartlands that turned to Boris Johnson in 2019 for the promise of levelling up did not vote to give tax breaks to the rich. That’s not democracy – it’s a masked raid.
Whether it is her own backbenchers or the wider electorate, I can’t help but think Truss has wildly misjudged the room. I’m not suggesting ITV’s This Morning will be the starting gun for the revolution, but when the public is (still) losing its collective mind over Holly Willoughby allegedly jumping a queue, perhaps we have had our fill of the rigged systems that enable a few to get ahead while the rest of us line up for scraps. The emergence of campaigns such as Enough is Enough and Don’t Pay in response to the cost of living crisis show there is not only growing anger at how things are but an appetite for change.
People are afraid they won’t be able to keep their children warm this winter and the prime minister is making sure bankers get bigger bonuses. That is not just bad optics, it is obscene. That’s the thing about class war. Sometimes it looks like a diamond-encrusted crown. But it can also be a tax bill and a cold front room.
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist