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I don’t expect a cabinet minister to live in a damp council flat, struggling to make ends meet on universal credit or the living wage (though it would be interesting to watch them try). I do expect them to be in touch with the voters who are “just about managing”, as Theresa May used to say.
Presumably if these “jams”, as they were briefly known, were indeed just about managing in 2017, they sure as hell aren’t managing now. If our rulers aren’t able to be in touch with the rest of us, or comprehend the crisis, then they could at least do a better job of disguising it.
We’ve had quite a few Marie Antoinette moments from this rather well-heeled cabinet – so cakeist in so many ways. The latest comes from the cabinet minister in charge of farming and food, George Eustice. Of all people, he might be expected to have some answers.
Eustice has the hopeless, diffident air of a football manager whose team has just been relegated but who still has to face an away clash with a rampant Liverpool. It doesn’t inspire. George says: “Generally what people find is going for some of the value brands, rather than own-branded products they can actually contain and manage their household budget.”
Thanks, George. But some folk have already cottoned on to that money saving tip. They probably did so during the previous Tory age of austerity. The slight snag that Eustice’s quip doesn’t adequately deal with is what the people who switched to own brands and budget supermarkets years ago are supposed to do.
Where do you go next after you’ve tasted the lemon drizzle in the cheapest ranges in the cheapest supermarkets? What if you’ve dropped down the ladder from artisan Bakewell tarts to Waitrose Duchy Originals to Mr Kipling to Tesco Everyday Value to Lidl? Stale crumbs from the Eustice family’s cake tin, to go with his flaky advice? It’s hard to believe Eustice represents one of the poorer constituencies in Cornwall, a county that knows all about the housing crisis and inequality.
Maybe just do without, I suppose is the unspoken answer, for the people in poverty in Redruth, or people such as Elsie, the unexpectedly heroic figure of the local elections, whose everyday struggles have inflicted more damage on the prime minister than the entire Labour front bench.
Elsie famously sticks to one meal a day and spends time riding buses to save on energy bills. Weaponised by a scornful Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain, all Johnson could say about Elsie’s plight was a boastful plea that he’d introduced the free bus pass she used when he was mayor of London. Naturally, the boast wasn’t even true.
We’ve got a whole cabinet of Marie Antoinettes. One was a non-dom, Sajid Javid, while the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is married to one, a woman richer than the Queen. You can’t really get more out of touch than not paying tax: “Rishi Notax” as Johnson reportedly nicknamed him. The nearest Sunak has come to a personal crisis is when The Independent revealed his personal tax affairs. He had to borrow a Kia Rio off a petrol station worker because his own cars (Tesla, Range Rover) were so ostentatious.
Then there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man with a Bentley and a nanny, and whose company manages the money of the rich offshore. He thinks the proliferation of food banks is because the British are such a charitable people.
Or Nahim Zahawi, education secretary, who spent £5,822.27 on heating for his stables. He’s a successful businessman, and he can spend his money where he likes, but that’s the sum he once claimed from the taxpayer to keep his gee gees nice and snug. Better than worse than the prime minister and his tasteful wife splashing out on wallpaper for their flat at £840 per roll?
You may judge for yourself about these obscenities, but they have to be placed in context. The Conservative Party isn’t some Marxist sect, still less an abstemious religious order. They like money. They don’t believe in creating a more equal society. They don’t think the state can or should solve the problems faced by the poor, because they basically think it’s their own fault and if they got a job they’d be fine.
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Nothing wrong with that, in its way. It’s a way of looking at the world an uncomfortable number of people share. The problem for the current generation of Conservatives is that they’ve caught themselves in a populist trap. All this stuff about rescuing “left behind” working class communities and “levelling up” have created huge expectations that simply cannot be met, other than by some vast Corbynistic scheme for redistribution of income wealth – which, it needs repeating, they definitely do not believe in. They don’t even believe in redistributing BP’s windfall bumper profits.
So they have no honest answer for the Elsies of this world. They trivialise the heat-or-eat crisis of foodbank families as “feeling the pinch” – the unfeeling, uncomprehending phrase used by Johnson in an article for the Daily Express (routine propaganda that needed more careful attention by the Tory media team).
They overstate the help they’re giving the poor, which makes them sound disingenuous. They say, as Sunak does, that they can’t help everyone, but don’t offer much explanation as to why, beyond some abstruse stuff about interest rates. Johnson tells them they need to make choices, as if this were some pearl of wisdom. What they really want to say to the likes of Elsie is “tough”. Then again, actions speak louder than words.